Lemon Balm and Crème Fraîche Ice Cream

I had never really thought of putting herbs in baked goods. But one day several years ago, before I began pastry school, I was flipping through a San Francisco magazine on my lunch break and happened upon an interview with Nicole Krasinski, the former pastry chef of the former Rubicon.

Apparently Ms. K enjoyed dipping into the savory kitchen for dessert inspirations (and even, I believe, confessed to not having a sweet tooth). She described concoctions made with such ingredients as black pepper, rosemary, basil, goat cheese, and even a dessert with salad greens.

Reading this opened up my mind; there was whole other world of sweets waiting to be explored.

(I just found a different interview with the savory-dessert queen herself and I think we might be soul mates. This is how she responded to the question ‘what does success mean to you:’ I would love to be on a farm making goat cheese. I’m looking for a more holistic lifestyle. I’d like to own my own business – a restaurant on a farm with goats.

Anyway, the next week, at Cook’s Bouleverd, the best cooking supply shop EVER in Noe Valley that I just found out is CLOSING and am now completely traumatized (deep breaths, deep breaths…), I happened upon The Herbfarm Cookbook and immediately brought it up to the purchase counter, cash in hand. (I did my part – why, why?) For months this book acted as my bible as I made basil ice cream, apple-rosemary caramel crepes, thyme shortbread, bay leaf and pumpkin tart, and left a pleading note on a lemon verbena plant in the Potrero Community Garden asking the owner if he/she would kindly sell/trade some to me. I ordered lovage, anise hyssop and angelica seeds in the mail, and planted chocolate mint and marjoram in window boxes. I was a woman possessed. An herb monster. And a dessert snob. I would turn my nose up at herb-free sweets at restaurants, wondering why chefs would bother hiring such talentless, unimaginative saps as they obviously had manning the dessert arena.

One day, we went down to Jay’s mom’s house in the country, and I almost fainted when I realized that the border along the driveway was positively brimming with lemon balm. I asked if I might be permitted to pick some of the precious stuff, my mind swirling with ideas of how I might use it. In the panna cotta recipe I’d clipped from a magazine the previous week, perhaps, or maybe a sorbet, or…

‘Oh that weed? Please, get rid of it!’ came the response.

Well, the years went by; the angelica and anise hyssop never even showed so much as a sprout; the lovage grew, then got horribly infected with aphids, along with everything else, and had to get the axe, despite the repeated and drastic anti-insect measures taken. Lemon verbena started popping up occasionally in our box and also at Rainbow, and I realized that people can be rather childish when it comes to dessert, particularly where I work, and that, generally, all they want is chocolate.

But a bunch of lemon balm arrived in our box this week, rekindling the spark of excitement that comes with mixing fresh, grassy herbs with sugar and creamy things. I got out the old book, found the lemon verbena ice cream recipe, and tweaked it a bit to suit my purposes.

What makes this recipe unique is that rather than steeping the green stuff in hot cream, which can alter the flavor of more delicate herbs, they get pulsed with sugar, stirred into cold dairy, strained and frozen into an ice cream, thereby keeping those fresh flavors intact, bright green flecks suspended in a cold, tangy treat. Crème fraîche and a squeeze of lime juice punch up the flavors, and the mixture takes just minutes to put together.

Cowgirl Creamery makes a delicious, local, organic crème fraîche, but you can save some dollars by making your own. Just stir 1 tablespoon buttermilk into 1 cup heavy cream. Let it sit in a warmish place (I put mine on top of the fridge) for about 24 hours, stirring once or twice so that the fat doesn’t congeal on the top. When it is evenly thickened to the consistency of runny yogurt, give it a final stir, and store in the fridge. It will keep for one to two weeks. Use it anywhere you would sour cream, like drizzling into soups, on scones, or over a fruit tart or pie.

Lemon Balm and Crème Fraîche Ice Cream

Adapted from The Herbfarm Cookbook

Makes about 3 cups, or 6 servings

1/2 cup gently packed lemon balm leaves, rinsed and dried, plus a few leaves reserved for garnish
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt
1 cup creme fraîche
1 cup half and half
juice of half a lime (about 1 tablespoon)
fresh berries, for serving (optional)

Pulse the lemon balm and sugar together in a food processor until finely ground. Pulse in the salt, crème fraiche, half and half and lime juice until combined. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, then freeze in an ice cream maker. ‘Cure’ the ice cream in the freezer until firm, two hours or so, then serve with fresh strawberries, if desired.

This ice cream is best eaten a day or two after being made, but will keep in the freezer for a month or so. I mean, it’s ice cream, after all.

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