Step by step photos to accompany this recipe can be found at...
Man I needed a break. I dread summer for a plethora of reasons - not least of which is the oppressive and relentless heat. However, the thing that really makes me fear the balmy season is the fact that it coincides with the Christmas - New Year party season down here. It is always a bone-crunchingly physical and emotionally sapping time. Frighteningly, the silly season of 2004/2005 was even worse than any I have survived before.
12 months ago we had 3 chefs slaving to get 6 weeks of never-ending feasts cooked and plated. The year before that we had 4.This year, I was one of two unfortunate bastards who really had no choice but to un-emotively wander into the Maelstrom and hope for mercy or a miracle. We got neither. December 2004 was a month of record takings for the business, and on the face of it this is pretty good news. But hell, I really needed that break.
Well, whether through happenstance, or out of fear that if they kept us working, the sallow bodies of 2 chefs would need to be taken out with the evening garbage, the owner of the restaurant decided to close for the first two weeks in 2005. This would be one of the few breaks I'd had in years, and I knew I would rue it if I didn't make it special. Luckily I only had 2 simple criteria - silence and solitude. I hired a renovated (and no longer operational) dairy milking farm on an isolated property 3 hours drive south of Sydney. It met my needs in spades. Spartan antique furnishings, simple open layout, big windows, a four-poster bed and a north-facing deck fringed with wild roses that gazed out over the top paddock with its resident cow, further onto the rugged ranges in the distance. I swear, hours would go by and all I could hear was the metallic twist of a Tanqueray gin bottle opening, or the lush, moist, surrender of blood oranges being juiced.
By now you may be thinking I don't have a snowball's chance of a smooth segue to cranberries or ice cream - and you may well be right. Trust me though - there is a tenuous, yet vital link. You see, 2 weeks later and now I'm back at work - yet mentally I'm still back on that farm, sucking down icy glasses of gin and blood orange. And I'm still watching the ancient, fierce mountain ranges put on a photon show second to none with the setting sun as co-star. I mean really... coming up with recipes really pales next to this sort of hedonism.
However, in the cold, harsh light of gainful employ, I came to realise that dandy foppery of this nature would soon see me jobless. So how exactly does one rise up to to defeat idleness like this? More concisely, how does a cook that doesn't want to cook get inspired?
Ingredients. It's that simple - don't scoff. You may well have heard some TV chef rabbit on about "Choosing great produce!" and "Treat it with respect!". Sure, media waffle like this is so-oft regurgitated that the truth of the original sentiment can be obscured. In essence, nothing inspires you to cook more than letting stunning ingredients be your guide. I've been eying these dried cranberries for a few months now, listed in our cheese and specialty providore's product sheet. Now I'm sure they give dried cranberries away at the podiatrist in North America, but in faraway Oz, cranberries are rare birds indeed - dried or otherwise. Vodka with cranberry juice is about as far down the Viburnum trilobum path we had wandered. The big 1kg bag arrived at work this morning, packed with scarlet glistening berries. They were dried and raisiny, but they were anything but 'dry'. They were texturally luscious - soft, chewy and yielding. The deliciously sweet initial taste gave way to a bracing, yet not overwhelming acidity. They were certainly addictive, and we munched on them for around an hour after they arrived. But still I hadn't a clue for how to use them. We joked that they may taste nice in a cocktail, or studded in a glass of vodka and cranberry juice. Then I hit on it - Vodka cranberry is a tried and loved combo - why not ice it, churn it, and make it into the ultimate growed-ups frozen dessert?
It all flowed from there. Take a big bowl of dried cranberries and souse them in good vodka. Let them sit til they soak up the spirit and morph into plump, ruby vodkaberries. Make a rich creamy ice cream, then churn these little red booze ballons into the mix. We had fun tonight once the ice cream had set. Staff drinks were swapped for heaped bowls of ice cream that were a sweet, tangy treat and a liquored-up barfly experience all rolled into one.
This is how it's done.
Dried Cranberry and Stoli Ice Cream
Place the berries in a glass or stainless steel bowl and pour on the vodka (Step 1). Allow it to soak into the berries for at least an hour - but longer is better, like overnight in the fridge. You could even soak a larger amount and put them aside for months - perhaps years. They will just get more heady the longer they are left.
Place the milk into a saucepan and bring to the simmer. Place the yolks and sugar into a large, heat-proof bowl and whisk to combine (Step 2). Once the milk has come to the simmer, pour directly onto the yolks and whisk to combine. Pour this mixture into a large, heavy-based saucepan and set over medium heat. Stir constantly until the custard has thickened - around 7-10 minutes depending on how high your flame is. A good indicator of when the custard is ready can be found in your stirring spoon. Lift the spoon out with a good coating of custard, and run your finger along the spoon. The line in the custard should remain distinct, and not fill in with runny custard (Step 3). When the custard is ready, remove from the heat and quickly pour the cold cream directly into the pot. Stir to cool the custard, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean container. Set aside to cool completely.
When chilled to room temperature, place into an ice cream churner, along with the berries and any remaining soaking-vodka, and churn until the ice cream is set (Step 4). Spoon out into a container, place in the freezer and cool for at least 6 hours, overnight is better.
At the moment we are happy just eating this ice cream as it comes, but that'll wear thin before long and when it does, I envisage serving something simple, yet sinfully divine alongside - such as ripe figs, cut in half and liberally drizzled with complex Ligurian honey, and scattered with chopped hazelnuts. Place these on a baking sheet and roast in a hot (220° C - 440° F) oven for 4 or 5 minutes until heated through and just starting to soften. They will be dripping with rich, warm, sticky honey - laced with that decadent fig flavour. Don't let me take another break.