A Rebel with a Cause: Spiced Sweet Potato Ice Cream

If you ever need to be reminded of the sweetness of life (and the importance of lifelong learning), Bill Yosses, the executive pastry chef at the White House, is your man. Apropos to the back-to-school season, I saw him speak on Monday as part of the Harvard Lecture Series on science and cooking.

To say he is passionate about life is a chocolatey understatement. Full of dessert-filled surprises and a vast knowledge of subjects ranging from history to chemistry, he is a man of delightful contrast: one part traditionalist, one part rebel. He is charming and pure pleasure to listen to.

And he had a lot to say about a lot of things. He said some things that were expected. He preached about using quality ingredients (expected). He discussed the importance of moderation (unexpected).

He showed us a picture of the human brain; said our sense of smell is linked to the amygdala—a part of the brain responsible for fear and emotion (unexpected). He referred to dessert as “brain candy” (expected).

He talked about making classic French-style marshmallows (expected). He rebelled against the traditional rules of chocolate mousse making by using gelatin instead of cream to provide lightness (unexpected).

He spoke very fondly of Thomas Jefferson, a lover of food and gardening (expected). For a good twenty minutes (unexpected).

He made ice cream (expected). He made ice cream by pouring liquid nitrogen into citrus and olive oil (unexpected).

He inspired me and when I asked myself how I should celebrate the start of another sweet season, spud-based ice cream was the obvious answer. As a result, I have quite a bit in my freezer at the moment. Naturally, I’ve been experimenting with different ways of eating it.

There is the classic fall method: douse in maple syrup (expected); sprinkle with smoked sea salt if you are feeling frisky (as pictured). Or melt chocolate and peanut butter and pour over the ice cream (unexpected). Because the ice cream is fairly heavily spiced, it does well with a variety of flavors. Don’t worry, its burly and it can handle some abuse.

And now is certainly not the time to be timid: it’s fall. Get back in touch with comforting classics. Be inspired. Live like a White House pastry chef. Learn. Read up on Thomas Jefferson. Rebel. Make ice cream out of potatoes.

Spiced Sweet Potato Ice Cream

Adapted from Down Home with the Neelys

1-15 oz can of sweet potato puree
1.5 cups half and half
1/4 cup seasonal beer
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Pinch of salt

Blend all ingredients until smooth. Chill and churn in an ice cream maker according to the instructions

-This is the second year I made this ice cream recipe and I have to say the version last year was better.

This time I used sweet potatoes that I had roasted instead of the canned potatoes (1 can is about 2.25 cups).

I also used a different beer and was without my friend, Justin, for the ice cream-making process. If you have a friend named Justin, I suggest inviting him to help. There is no downside to this. He may also drink the remaining beer and provide additional entertainment.

-Magic Hat #9 was great in this ice cream.


On a Wing and a Chocolate Covered Ground Cherry

Everyone needs a little whimsy. I recently found some in the ground cherry. Ground cherries are those little Chinese lantern-looking fruits that appear at farmers’ markets in August and September.

I held off buying them for years because I found them perplexing. What were they hiding inside their papery shells? Also, they made me feel bad. You tear their poor little husks back and then what? The cherry is gone in an instant. The whole husk removal process made me feel like I was tearing off angels’ wings. I have enough to worry about without having to fret that I am stirring up trouble in the cherub community.

Then I tasted them. It was like a pineapple and a very sweet cherry tomato got together and had a love child that they wanted to keep a secret. Ground cherries may come all wrapped up, but I can’t keep quiet about them. They are ethereal.

Much like the lemon-ginger mousse coupe I had at Myers + Chang earlier this week. I have practically been stopping strangers on the street to spread the lemon-ginger gospel. Tasting it was like eating a cloud of lemon meringue pie.

The mousse also came with a homemade fortune cookie. You don’t get much more whimsical than that. My fortune: he who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at. Ha!

Joanne Chang’s fanciful dessert (and fortune) must have inspired me because I decided to hold the ground cherries I recently bought by their wings and dip them into chocolate. I used Taza chocolate because I love it and because it is the only chocolate I keep around.

Their factory in Somerville, Massachusetts uses authentic, hand-chiseled Mexican stone mills to grind the cacao they purchase (fairly and responsibly) from farmers. This makes for lovely chocolate. Their granite millstones also make for chocolate with a slightly gritty texture that doesn’t lend itself well to certain baking projects. One could argue it’s probably not practical to have Taza as my “house chocolate.” (To which I reply, since when is chocolate practical?) So on a wing and a prayer, I dipped the ground cherries into Taza’s gritty chocolate.

It worked, but it wasn’t optimal and I’d probably recommend a different chocolate if you are going to try this. Though, you have to love a product with an ingredient list like this:

Ingredients: organic roasted cacao beans, organic cane sugar and organic vanilla bean.

So the ground cherries took a little bath in some pretty pure stuff. Sure, you can see they have a little bit of texture to their bottoms, but this is chocolate dipped fruit we are talking about. Best to keep it light and keep your brow unfurled.

It turns out in the end, the ground cherries held their own little husked maxim: he who laughs at his own chocolate covered ground cherries laughs often (and eats well).

Chocolate Covered Ground Cherries

About 1.5 ounces high quality chocolate, of your choice, chopped into similar-sized pieces
1/2 pint ground cherries

Pull back the husks of the ground cherries but do not detach. Melt two-thirds of the chocolate in a microwave at 10 second intervals. (This is an easy way to temper chocolate so that it chocolate stays smooth and glossy. Though, I suppose if you are using gritty chocolate, it doesn't really matter much now does it?) When the microwaved chocolate is melted, add the reserved chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate is melted. Dip the ground cherries into the chocolate and allow to set.

-It is recommended to heat the chocolate until 110 degrees. I've had a candy thermometer on my wish list for quite some time now. Sadly, I don't know that I'll ever be the kind of gal to take the temperature of chocolate before I eat it.


Thoughts of Fall & Flirting with Oven-Candied Tomatoes

I think I have been mind cheating on summer. Technically, we have a few weeks before fall begins, but I’ve already had thoughts of beef bourguignon and spiced sweet potatoes. I can’t wait to turn my oven on. I can’t wait to start braising again.

I feel like a monster. Who is this person so ready to give up on summer? We have had so many fond food memories together. I’ve eaten salads enrobed in blueberry vinaigrette and had my breakfast sweetened with lemon lavender marmalade. And yet …

Oh, the guilt.

My remorse led me straight to the pool this past Sunday; a last-ditch effort to rekindle what was left of my summer romance with summer. It was so cold I kept my jacket on the entire time. It clearly wasn’t working.

I should have seen this seasonal adultery coming: all the signs were there. Last week, I lost my cool when I sliced open a melon from the farmers’ market and its juice dumped all over the floor. I’ve grown emotionally distant—a tad neglectful even—with my corn, letting its natural sugar quietly turn to starch in my bottom crisper drawer. I’ve become resentful of peaches. (For once, I’d like to eat a peach in peace, without having to stand over my kitchen sink and have juice dribble down my chin.)

I’ve even been working later and longer hours, as I recently took a job as a food columnist for the South End News. (Curious? Check out my column about Joanne Chang of famed Flour Bakery + CafĂ© and her sticky buns.) I’ve loved this extra work, but have been too tired to even attempt making a berry fool or nectarine tart. Or maybe I've just lost interest?

Then I encountered the oven-candied tomato. It was the best of both worlds: bursting with the final flavors of summer, while still being hearty enough to carry me right into the arms of fall. The tomatoes barely lasted 12 hours: a very brief affair (but definitely one to remember).

It was also just saucy enough to ease the guilt. And you know what they say about guilt; it's a wasted emotion. Oh wait, that's regret. On second thought, I'd better buy a bushel of tomatoes before it's too late.

Oven-Candied Tomatoes
Adapted from The Splendid Table with Lynne Rossetto Kasper

10 plum tomatoes
1/3 cup olive oil
3 springs rosemary, chopped
Pinch red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice tomatoes in half and toss with olive oil on a sheet pan. Sprinkle with rosemary and red pepper flakes; generously season with salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes and then turn oven to 350 degrees and roast for another 30 minutes. (You may need to occasionally turn the pan to ensure even cooking.) Turn oven to 300 degrees and roast for an additional 30 minutes or until edges of tomatoes start to blacken slightly. If still not at desired doneness, turn oven to 250 degrees and roast for 10-15 minutes more.

Makes 20 halves

-I am hoping I will stumble across a glut of September tomatoes; they often become discounted towards the tail end of the season, if you can hold out long enough.

-Theoretically, you should be able to freeze the tomatoes for a few months, should you have enough self-control to let them last that long.


(Fig)uring It All Out

There are some perks to getting older. If you do it right, you also get wiser. Well, wise might be a bit of a stretch. Suffice to say you may just become too tired to worry about things that don’t really matter.

Nevertheless, realizing you don’t need to have all your eccentricities compartmentalized and your cobwebs swept up is invigorating. Sure, my garden currently looks like it is being tended to by the crypt keeper and sure I’ve had to check that my pants weren’t being worn inside-out already once this week, but perfection is overrated.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, has a great quote about this:

Perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

So when I found myself agonizing over whether Narragansett Creamery salty sea feta or a French goat cheese was better suited to be stuffed into the figs I was making for dinner, I had to snap myself back to reality. Cheese selection—even in the presence of the stately fig—is not of cosmic significance. (As much as I would like to believe otherwise.) So, I took a few deep breaths in front of the cheese counter, rolled my eyes, and got over myself. Next, I quietly filed ‘cheese selection’ into the ever-expanding list of things that probably won’t change my life.

Then I did something completely out of character: I bought BOTH varieties and decided to let the best cheese win. To my surprise, the feta—the unlikely partner—was better. The fig needed more bite than the goat cheese was willing to give. The roasted fig stuffed with feta and drizzled with maple syrup ended up being the perfect bridge from the end of summer to the beginning of fall.

Though not native to Massachusetts, figs reach peak harvest right around now on the west coast. I always have them on hand, fresh when available or dried when out of season. They are quite special either way.

Not surprisingly, fig trees are also a labor of love to grow, requiring five years or more of TLC before you see a darn fig. Once they do produce, the trees can continue on prolifically for decades, centuries even. It is even said the Buddha reached enlightenment while sitting under an old fig tree.

And he has likely been trying to tell us something about this all along. Slow down. Breathe. Eat more figs. (Though I am not quite sure how he’d feel about them being wrapped in bacon.)

So pardon the pun, but I’ve fig-ured out you don’t have to have all the questions of your life answered and your problems wrapped up with little pink bows. It helps to leave some room for possibility: see what develops. It’s much more fun this way. And much less scary. This is true enlightenment, at least for me; that, and eating pretty much anything encased in bacon.

Stuffed Figs Wrapped in Bacon with Maple Syrup

Fresh figs
Hazelnut oil (or any other you prefer)
Smoked sea salt
Black pepper
Feta cheese (or any other you prefer)
Maple syrup

Preheat oven to 425. Slice figs in half and toss gently with oil until they are lightly coated. Season with salt and pepper. Stuff the center of your fig with a small amount of feta. Wrap in bacon and secure with a toothpick. Bake for about 15-20 minutes or until bacon is crisped. Drizzle with maple syrup. Sprinkle with additional sea salt, if desired.

-I didn't list amounts for the ingredients in this recipe, nor provide a yield; who am I to decide what amount of fig or bacon is right for you at this very moment? Enjoy experimenting.

-I buy bacon from Stillman's Farm. They raise animals consciously and humanely, which I like to think the Buddha would appreciate. It's also not very salty, so you may have to adjust your seasoning depending on the bacon you use.