Except for a certain tween-aged obsession with Madonna, I’ve never been particularly star-struck by actors or pop musicians. I spent many slumber parties listening to my friends whisper excitedly about some guy named Jason Priestly, wondering whether or not he was related to Elvis and if they were mispronouncing his last name.
(Yes, I just dated myself.)
Instead, I dreamed of meeting Wolfgang Puck. Our eyes would lock. I would ask him how he made his legendary butternut squash soup. He would smile, and offer me a job in one of his kitchens. It would be magical.
While I never did get to chew the fat with Wolfie, I did exchange a few words with local SF chocolatier Michael Recchiuti several years ago. One morning at Farley’s, where I worked as a barista, a swarthy man sporting blue coveralls and five o’clock srcuff approached the counter to order a coffee. To the untrained eye, he resembled an auto-mechanic, but I happened to notice an embroidered patch sewn to the breast of his coveralls which read ‘Michael Recchiuti.’ I gasped. ‘You work for Michael Recchiuti?!’ I asked, sounding undoubtedly like a twelve-year-old. ‘Actually,’ he said shyly, ‘I am Michael Recchiuti.’
I managed to refrain from asking him to sign my bra, but I did promptly go out and purchase his cookbook, Chocolate Obsession, and use it to make an obscene amount of confections to give as holiday gifs that year. This stunning collection of photographs and recipes divulges the secrets of Michael’s renowned chocolates, and it also contains sections devoted to baked goods, sauces, drinks and even ice creams. My favorite steeps cacao nibs in a creamy custard base, then mixes in clumps of nibs coated in caramelized sugar.
With a double dose of nibs, this ice cream carries the deep, earthy flavor of cacao without the pasty texture that chocolate ice cream can sometimes have. It tastes both exotically sophisticated and familiarly reminiscent of childhood (chocolate milk, perhaps?). The toothsome nibs give the ice cream a pleasant crunch for a satisfying dessert that needs no embellishment. My friend Amelia said that it is to chocolate ice cream what commercial milk chocolate is to good, dark chocolate.
I adapted the ice cream base to my preferred proportions from the dreamy vanilla ice cream, and candy the nibs in a different manner than Michael suggests, as his method resulted in burnt nibs for me. The candied nibs can be pulled when still warm to create amorphous shapes of nibs and caramelized sugar, which make a pretty garnish if you save some for that purpose.
Whether or not you are star-struck by actors, chefs, or auto-mechanics, you may find yourself obsessed with the smoky flavor of cacao nibs, and begin sprinkling them into granola, cookies, or over chocolate pudding.
Cacao Nib Ice Cream with Candied Nibs
Inspired by Michael Recchiuti
Makes about 1 quart, 8 servings
1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 cup cacao nibs
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped (or the pod leftover from a previously scraped bean, such as the one used for huckleberry cheesecake squares)
1 cup cold heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
Candied nibs (recipe below)
Combine the half and half, nibs and vanilla in a medium saucepan. Warm over medium heat, swirling occasionally, until steaming and small bubbles form around the sides of the pan. Cover and steep for 30 minutes.
Pour the cold cream into a bowl or quart-sized measuring cup and set a fine mesh strainer over the bowl.
In a medium bowl secured on a damp towel, whisk together the yolks, sugar and salt. Re-warm the half and half until steaming again, then gradually pour it into the yolks, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pot, place over medium-low heat, and cook, stirring continually with a heat-proof rubber spatula, until the mixture begins to ‘stick to’ (form a film on) the bottom of the pot, or measures 170º on an instant read thermometer. Immediately pour through the sieve and into the cold cream, pressing on the nibs to extract any liquid. Optionally chill the mixture in an ice bath. Refrigerate at least four hours or up to a couple of days.
Spin the mixture in an ice cream maker until the texture of a thick milkshake, then mix in the candied nibs (below.) ‘Cure’ in the freezer for at least an hour or until firm enough to scoop.
1/2 cup cacao nibs
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1/4 cup sugar
Spread the nibs on a small baking sheet and toast in a 300º oven or toaster oven until just fragrant, 2 – 3 minutes. Place in a small bowl to keep warm and have at the ready.
Measure out the butter and salt and place it near the stove with the nibs. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat (silicone baking mat.) Have a heat proof rubber spatula handy.
In a small saucepan, combine the water and corn syrup. Place the sugar in the center of the liquid so that it doesn’t get on the sides of the pot, and gently moisten with your fingers. Place the pot over medium-high heat and cook until the sugar turns to an amber caramel, tilting the pan gently if the sugar colors unevenly, brushing down the sides of the pot with a wet pastry brush if crystals begin to form. Immediately add the butter and salt, swirl to melt, then add the nibs. Quickly stir with the spatula to coat, and scrape out onto the silpat. Spread the nibs as thinly as possible, then, as they begin cool, carefully use your fingers (don’t burn yourself!) to pull the nibs into thin, amorphous shapes. Let harden, about 10 minutes. Reserve some bits for garnish if desired, then break up the rest into clumps of 5 or so nibs. Freeze for 10 minutes or so before adding to the ice cream.
The candied nibs can be kept at room temperature for a few days (the sugar may begin to soften) or in the freezer for up to a few months.