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I was on the debate team in high school (because I like to argue and I am a very cool person obviously). I’m not sure if I developed a habit of mine there, or if I simply refined it – but I have a tendency to systematically defend things before others even get a chance to shoot them down. As habits go, it’s not always the best – after all, there’s a lot to be said for putting things out there with strong and silent confidence. But you can win a lot of debates (including the real-world kind) by raising, addressing, and dismissing an argument before your opponent has a chance to level it at you. On that note, I’m going to talk – and preemptively defend – my ice cream.
Be it resolved that a quirky-sounding strawberry ice cream can actually be even better than the basic classic.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s a refrain we’ve all heard many times, and there’s a lot to be said in support of the idea. I know I’ve rolled my eyes at plenty of dishes that would have been better off left alone (side note: I’m really glad we’re not putting truffles on every single thing anymore). But sometimes even a classic deserves a bit of rethinking. Case in point: strawberry ice cream. Now strawberries MIGHT just be my absolute favourite fruit. I mean, I’m not drawing a line in the sand or anything – it’s a fruity Sophie’s choice sort of situation. I didn’t develop this recipe because I find strawberries boring and think they need some zip – I did it because I adore strawberries, and I wanted make an ice cream that really let them shine. Basil and goat cheese don’t sound like the most obvious of ice cream ingredients, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is some sort of bizarre and unnecessary foodie concoction, but they’re actually chosen for very specific (and delicious) reasons.
First of all, let’s look at basil. Basil and strawberry go stunningly well together, and I’m hardly the first person to say so. Both plants produce fairly large quantities of the aromatic compound methyl cinnamate, a chemical with a distinct strawberry-like aroma. I’m sure you’re not too surprised to learn that strawberries contain a chemical that smells like strawberries, but you’ve probably never sniffed a handful of basil and thought “ahhh, my favourite little red fruit!” That’s because basil’s complex scent is thanks to a whole host of highly aromatic chemical compounds, of which methyl cinnamate is only one aspect. Interestingly some varieties of basil (tropical varieties in particular) are reported to have far higher levels of methyl cinnamate than others, so you may find that certain types of basil speak (smell?) to you more than others do.
The second odd ingredient – goat cheese – is in here for less biochemically informed reasons. I mean, I’m sure there’s some solid biochemistry going on, but I don’t know the details. Instead, it’s included to introduce a sour, somewhat puckering acidity to the dairy that helps to amplify the taste of fresh fruit. As I mentioned in another recent recipe (Peach Pots de Crème), David Lebovitz points out in his ice cream book The Perfect Scoop that fruity flavours can get a little lost against the creamy richness of French-style custard-based ice creams. One solution is to use an egg-free Philadelphia-style base (as I’ve done here). Another is to use sour cream, or another sour-tasting agent as part of the base. So why did I use goat cheese instead of sour cream? Three reasons – 1) I had goat cheese in the fridge, 2) I am a relentless kitchen experimenter, and 3) it honestly just sounded like a good idea. When it comes to achieving greatness in the kitchen, I think it helps to really listen to that little #3 voice in your head. It doesn’t always work out – but boy did it work out here. It’s a delightfully summery, floral, fruit-forward ice cream. The goat cheese delivers a tangy, almost savoury punch that further compliments the basil, while the basil itself contributes to the wonderful aroma without overpowering. And I really mean that too – my kids were REALLY into this ice cream, so you can cast aside any worries that this is going to be some kind of eyebrow-raising ‘acquired taste’ kind of dessert.
Strawberry ice cream ain’t broke, so we’re not fixing it. Instead, we’re diving into that oh-so-human endeavour of extension and experimentation. It’s a step into unknown, wondrous territory! Is it delicious? Undeniably. Is it better than plain strawberry ice cream? You’ll have to decide that yourself; tastes are, after all, deeply personal. Is it something you should make? Absolutely. Am I being comically over-dramatic in the conclusion to my one-sided, self-imposed ice cream debate? Also yes. You don’t win debates by hedging your bets.