I am one of those types of cooks who can most kindly be referred to as improvisational. I don't hate recipes (in fact, I read them all the time) but I don't follow them either. Not even my own. If I do something well once, the next time I have to remix it completely, or else I get totally bored. Some dishes -- sauces, cocktails, salads -- are quite forgiving of this style of cooking. Others -- baking or anything that relies on precision, food chemistry or technique-- not so much. (Ask my daughter about that time I tried to make purple mashed potatoes in a blender).
I always put ice cream and sorbet in the latter category. You can play around with flavors, sure. But if you don't have the right ratio of sugar to liquid, you will end up with either a rock solid brick or a drippy mess. While messing around with our ice cream maker -- one of those cool attachments that you can buy for the KitchenAid mixer -- I have made plenty of mistakes in both directions.
Thus far this summer, I have made a lavender lemon sorbet (simple syrup infused with about a quarter cup of lavender flowers, cooled, strained and mixed with about a cup of fresh lemon juice); a watermelon balsamic syrup sorbet (from one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, Bryant Terry's "Vegan Soul Kitchen": reduce two cups balsamic vinegar to 3/4 cups syrup, add fresh watermelon juice, agave, lemon juice and one tablespoon of vodka; save the rind for his pickled watermelon rind recipe and you will be beloved by all ); and Mark Bittman's totally improbable honey sorbet (melt one cup of honey in two cups of water, cool, freeze, and serve; this stuff is astonishing). All of them were pretty tasty; most of them were slightly off in texture or sweetness.
Which brings us to last Sunday, when six of us, including my boyfriend's cousin who went to school as a pastry chef, were sitting around eating the remnants of my sorbet experiments, barbecuing and drinking our recently re-carbonated homebrewed beer.
"Why don't you just put an egg in it?" asked the pastry-chef-schooled cousin.
At first, I thought he was suggesting that egg was an ingredient in sorbet and was about to get all know-it-all home cook on the pastry chef. But then he explained to me that in pastry school, when making sorbet, he was taught to place a clean, unbroken, raw egg in the chilled solution of liquid and sugar water. If the egg floats, with only a nickel-sized part of the top showing, things are exactly right. If more than a nickel-size portion of the egg shows, you need to add more liquid or puree; if the egg egg sinks, you need to add more sweetener (when adding to cold liquids, use simple syrups, honey, or agave; plain sugar will not dissolve).
The next day, after the beer wore off, I remembered his tip and decided to check it out on the interwebs. Sure enough, when I Googled "egg test sorbet" I got a hit from yet another pastry chef. Like all things, there is dissension in the ranks: Some say a nickel; some say a quarter; others a dime. But the gist of it is that floating an egg will tell you how much sugar you have suspended in your solution.
Armed with this new knowledge, I decided to get improvisational with the frozen food stuffs. First up was last week's beer. I had found this recipe for beer sorbet, which calls for beer, simple syrup and a tablespoon or so of lime juice. Because I planned to use my egg trick, I disregarded all measurements and just went by taste. I started with my last, still-flat bottle of homemade chestnut beer. We had used a dash of honey as the sweetener when brewing the beer, so I decided to try that again. First I whisked the honey into the beer:
You want it to dissolve completely. Often, it works best if you heat the liquid and the syrup on the stove, but it's not always necessary. Instead of the honey, you could also use a homemade simple syrup or agave nectar.
Next I added the juice of one lime and tasted until the acidity seemed about right:
Once you've mixed your ingredients, stash them in the refrigerator until the mixture is thoroughly chilled. Then it's time for the egg test:
The brown liquid over the brown egg makes the spot look bigger than it actually is, but trust me, it was about the size of a nickel.
Our ice cream maker, which we bought in an earlier, more comfortably faux-bourgeois period, has a paddle attachment for the mixer and a bowl that you freeze completely. (If you don't have an ice cream maker, there are plenty of other methods you can try). This is what it looks like in action:
Usually I set the timer for fifteen to twenty minutes and let it spin. Often, when I come back after the timer goes off, things still aren't looking quite the way they should. But this time, when I passed the mixer after only ten minutes, I saw this gorgeous swirl of creaminess:
I took it out of the ice cream maker, packed it into plastic and stashed it in the freezer:
Pretty, right? Yes, that is nothing more than beer, a splash of lime and some honey, frozen and churned.
Newly empowered by my discovery, I decided to tear around our neighborhood, inventing sorbets on the fly. First stop, the coffee shop up the street where my daughter has worked for the past three years, from whom I bought a large iced coffee:
(Yes, that would be my daughter. When I came in, she was inexplicably playing Of Montreal, one of my favorite bands whom I didn't think she liked, they being "my" kind of music, but then she explained it came on Pandora, which she had set to "Au Revoir Simone," another band I didn't think she cared about, but that she must have picked up in college. She's darling, isn't she?). I usually drink my coffee black, no sugar, so she was shocked when I loaded up on the simple syrup at the condiment stand:
Back at home, I mixed in some almond milk (no reason; just the only kind I usually keep in the refrigerator; Chris likes soy; I like almond; Syd likes cow) and broke out the egg:
Yes, there is an egg in that photo. It's just at the bottom of the bowl. I added more sweetener, went through the whole thing again and damn if I didn't end up with a tasty coffee sorbet.
Finally I got to these:
Pictured is a package of prickly pears, along with the remnants of a hibiscus tea (whole hibiscus flowers dumped into filtered water with a handful of dried rosehips, then stashed in the sun for an afternoon). The prickly pears turn this pathologically fluorescent pink when juiced. I mixed their juice with the hibiscus tea and the juice from half a lime. For the sweetener, agave -- also from a cactus, the same one that produces tequila -- was the natural choice. In keeping with the theme, I then added a tablespoon or so of tequila.
Let me tell you, my friends, this was awesome. And completely, totally ad-libbed without a recipe. Embrace the mighty egg! Co-conspirator to all the kitchen hackers, dreamers and makers of improbably delicious things.