Because why not celebrate an ancient tradition with something not at all traditional? This is my contribution to the upcoming Chinese New Year festivities; an ice cream with some classic Chinese flavors and a little bit of heat. Don’t be scared: the final product isn’t as wild as you may think. Imagine how homemade orange rolls taste when they’re fresh from the oven: you smell the spice of cinnamon, the sweetness of orange, and the overall effect is a feeling of warmth and comfort. That’s very much how this ice cream tastes, only with a little extra something to make it exotic.
I think five-spice powder works just as well with sweet dishes as it does in savory ones; perhaps even better. Although each blend is different (depending on the brand, or if you make your own) it’s commonly a mix of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seed, and either white or Sichuan pepper. Sichuan pepper is harder to find, so most ready-made blends come with the former rather than the latter. The one I use contains a little ginger as well. It’s a very versatile spice blend, if you think about it; using it in an orange ice cream seems a little bit like the perfect thing to spice up the cold mid-winter.
This was an experiment which took a few tries to get exactly right. The first time, the amount of chile flake I used went too far, and the heat was still pretty assertive even after freezing. The second time, I wasn’t paying enough attention to my base, and my final product tasted great but had an odd texture. My third attempt is the one you see before you: it has bright, winter-citrus flavor with the warmth of cinnamon and spice, and the gentle, background heat of chile, which amplifies the other flavors and blends them into a perfect little orange spice symphony.
I learned a few things from this one, so if you like to mess around with ice cream flavors, keep a few things in mind:
- When using heat in a dessert, less really is more. This is especially true if you’re letting the mixture steep while heated. Heating liquids and spice together spread out the flavor, and steeping those spices in the warmed liquid brings them even closer to the forefront. Although it’s true that freezing ice cream dulls the flavors somewhat, you’d be surprised how much it doesn’t dull heat. If it’s too spicy going in to the freezer, it will be too spicy coming out. That being said, use any sort of heat-bearing spice sparingly and with care.
- Using proper equipment could (and most likely will) mean the difference between success and failure. The only – swear, only – thing I changed from my second to third batches was the type of pan I used to heat the base. The second time, my good heavy-bottomed saucepan was busy, so I used a less-heavy (but seemingly acceptable) saucepan of the same size. The result? some of my cream mixture caught on the bottom, it didn’t heat evenly, and my ice cream was very icy and not smooth and rich as it should be. It just never came together. I wasted a batch of ice cream trying to cut corners, and I’ll never do it again. Cream and egg mixtures are very delicate and deserve your best heavy-bottom saucepan, period.
- Don’t rush it. This could be said with most any sort of food preparation, but is especially true with ice cream. You can’t make the base cook any faster, cool any faster, or be ready for your ice cream maker any faster than it would normally. If you push your base, it will push you back, and it will win. Don’t try to hurry things along; if you feel like you’re going to be impatient, make your base and chill it at night, then stick it in your fridge while you sleep; this way it has ample time to chill without you hovering over it.
I love a good orange roll, and this is my ice cream/spicy version of a frozen orange roll. I promise you, it’s delicious, and with oranges all over the place right now, it’s the perfect time to make this. If you’re having a Chinese New Year party, this would be delightful paired with almond or fortune cookies. If you’re not celebrating, this works really well as an after-dinner ice cream served with coffee. In fact, it may be delicious whirled up in your coffee. Just a thought.
Base adapted from Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones: 90 Recipes for Making Your Own Ice Cream and Frozen Treats from Bi-Rite Creamery by Kris Hoogerhyde, Anne Walker, and Dabney Gough. Inspiration for this came from a few places: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home has a Pumpkin Five Spice recipe, and she spices it with a little cayenne. Mostly it seemed like a fun thing to try out with oranges; if i were being completely honest, I started thinking about orange chicken and the flavors in that, and this was what came of it. I did not use chicken in this ice cream. You’re welcome.
Orange Five Spice + Chile Ice Cream
- 1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder
- 1/4 teaspoon red chile flake
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1 large orange (like a navel)
In a heavy bottomed saucepan, stir together the five spice blend, chile flake, heavy cream, whole milk, and half of the sugar (1/4 cup).
Heat the cream mixture over medium-high heat, until the mixture just begins to bubble around the edges, stirring occasionally. When you see bubbles, remove from the heat, cover the pan, and let steep for about 30 minutes, so all the flavors have a chance to blend. Be careful not to over-steep, or your flavors will be too strong.
In a medium heatproof bowl (I use my glass Pyrex bowl), whisk the yolks to break them up, then whisk in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Set aside.
When your cream mixture has finished steeping, uncover it and place the pan over medium-high heat. When the mixture just begins to simmer, reduce the heat to medium.
Using a ladle or measuring cup, carefully (it’s hot!) scoop out about 1/2 cup of the cream mixture and, whisking the egg mixture continuously, pour it into the eggs. Repeat with another 1/2 cup of the cream mixture, still whisking constantly and pouring slowly until everything is evenly combined.
Now, switch gears (and utensils) and use a rubber spatula to stir the egg/cream mixture back into the cream mixture on the stove. Stir constantly to blend, and continue stirring while you cook your base over medium heat.
Stir constantly with the spatula until your mixture has thickened, and coats the back of a spatula, 2-3 minutes. Don’t let my timing stop you; if you think it needs a minute more, please continue stirring until you feel like it’s the correct thickness.
Strain the base through a fine-mesh strainer (don’t skip this step, as it will get the chunks of chile flake out of the mixture) and into a clean bowl. Zest the orange over the warm base and stir with a spatula to combine. Set the container into the ice-water bath to cool, stirring occasionally. Once it has cooled, remove the container from the water bath, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight to finish chilling.
Freeze in your ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When it has finished spinning, transfer to a freezer-safe container to finish the freezing process, about 4 hours. When it’s time to serve, set it out for a few minutes to loosen up; you don’t want it to melt, but you want to take the hardness out of it. A five-minute thaw time should work well.
Makes about 1 quart.