It all started with a letter in the mail.
The page was scratched, almost attacked by green felt tip pen: it was a hand-written letter from Mario Batali, a well regarded, Italian-American restaurateur. Would I be interested in taking on his pastry chef for a few weeks? I agreed.
And like that, without even realising it, I had signed on to making gelato two or three times a day, for the length of her stay.
When teaching in English I prefer to call ‘gelato’, ‘custard-based ice cream’, as this dispenses quickly with the notion that ‘gelato’ could be anything approaching alchemy: like all desserts, it’s the quality of ingredients that dictates the finished product. I also point out that not all flavours are created alike. You simply can’t produce intense peach, green apple or lavender or whatever flavours, using only those ingredients. You’ll need to add additional flavour bases, unless you’re content with mild, suggestive versus explicit flavours. Espresso, cioccolato, and in this case, cannella or cinnamon, on the other hand offer intense flavours in the natural state. If you want that intensity, you need to start with bold ingredients, as the cold tends to mute them.
Meredith Kurtzman, Batali’s pastry chef, turned out to be exactly what I expected her to be. A cynical New Yorker who had worked for years in Manhattan restaurants, unfazed by any of it. ‘You know the place, ‘squirt some foam on it and charge an extra fifteen bucks’, she’d say, when I asked about a NY restaurant recommended to me by friends. And her wicked sense of humor feathered beautifully into mine, so that each morning I’d roll out of bed excited about chit-chatting while cracking the eggs together. (And it turns out that I didn’t exactly impress her with my kitchen-running abilities. Sending the staff for a fish market run one morning, our monger had opted to throw in the last two kilos of mussels from a 10 kilo sack, as a personal favour. Meredith sucked air through her teeth at the ‘wasted’ mussels, which ended up going home with the staff. ‘A lot of waste in your kitchen, chef’, she’d say, perhaps forgetting that we are a school, rather than a restaurant and that that changes things a bit).
My recipe (rather than hers, which would be for her to give out) goes like this:
750 dls of whole milk
250 dls of whole cream
10 egg folks
200 grams of our vanilla sugar
a pinch of salt
flavour agent, in this case, ground cinnamon (mine travelled back from Africa in a friend’s luggage).
The night before, chill your ice cream maker, serving vessels, spoons AND an appropriate enamelware pot (your favourite le creuset).
Crack the eggs, separating the whites from the yolks (give the whites to your friend the marathon runner, or make a meringue). Heat, milk, cream, sugar, cinnamon, salt until just below the boil, or that you notice the tiniest of swelling. Beat the eggs. Temper the eggs with the hot liquid, adding a ladle at a time, so as not to scramble the eggs. Once all the liquid has been added to the eggs, pour it all back into the pan and heat it again for a minute or two, until you sense that there is the slightest bit of thickening happening. Turn off the heat. Filter custard through a fine tea strainer (removing any eggs that you did manage to scramble, and in our case, any large pieces of vanilla pods used to flavour the sugar).
Chill thoroughly, either using an ice bath and/or by placing in the refrigerator. Once chilled, run through ice cream machine and then spatula it into your enamelware, for the hardening phase. Give it at least a few hours.
Serve in chilled glasses. Or bring the frozen pot back to bed with you in the middle of the night, giving the extra spoon to your wife or husband. Enjoy the rejuvenating qualities of good gelato, the clicking spoons, the sighs as you pull the chilly, upside-down spoon along your tongue, the icy pot on a towel between you, intimate and shared relief from the summer’s heat.