Nine Bowl Ice Cream: Trying Jeni's Salty Caramel Ice Cream at Home

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I'm not sure if nine bowls is the right number. It may well be twelve, plus uncounted measuring cups, sieves, measuring spoons, whisks, thermometers and ice cream maker innards. It takes a lot to make Salty Caramel Ice Cream the Jeni way.

When Sharon Thompson, food writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, ran a Los Angeles Daily News story containing three home recipes that Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, Ohio had developed, I recalled a happy beach dinner conversation with a Massachusetts friend who had ordered Jeni's by mail to test out its wonderfulness. (Yes, he said, it delivered the expected amazement.)

A friend from Columbus had told me about Jeni's, too. In addition to all the good reports from trusted sources, I had other reasons for wanting to try making it at home, including the "Wows" that came when I looked at the "Flavors" page of Jeni's website, the way I "favorited" caramel and especially burnt sugar style desserts as a knock-kneed kid, and the sheer geographic scope of Jeni's reputation for ice cream beyond the usual.

Plus one more thing. Jeni Britton Bauer's name sounds like it was made for an ice cream avatar. Doesn't it sound intriguing, luxurious, inscrutable, and properly chill?

Well, and one MORE thing. How hard could it be? It's ice cream, not molecular gastronomy.

I read the recipe. I read it again, making lots of "Hunh?" sounds. The recipe and the technique contrast rather substantially with the luscious Simple Vanilla Ice Cream I make most often. Simple Vanilla takes one bowl, one whisk, one measuring cup, and less than five minutes, following the stir-it-and-freeze-it recipe Cuisinart helpfully included with the machine a thoughtful son gave us a few years ago.

Finally I decided that I could understand the Jeni recipe only by launching out, taking it step by step: one bowl for a little milk and cornstarch. One bowl for cream and corn syrup. One bowl for cream cheese and salt. One bowl for ice water. A pot for caramelizing the dry sugar. And so I waded in.

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Here is the sugar, turning nicely amber.

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Cream cheese and salt.

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Below, a little milk stirred together with the cornstarch. Here began the first of several laughing fits, remembering one of my all time favorite blog posts, BraveTart writer Stella Parks's Pour Some Sugar On Me, in which the word "filth" actually shows up with regard to the joys of cooking. Stella's post describes a typical day in her life as a pastry chef in a popular restaurant that has space challenges, but the dirty word stuck with me. It comes in handy pretty often in my busy home kitchen, where a lot of things happen with milk and cream every week. Milk and cream spatter and spill and spot.

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That's the cream in the two-cup glass measuring cup, stirred together with two tablespoons corn syrup (yes, the very devil itself, but not the high fructose kind; this is the pecan pie once a year kind).

Let's see. In the metal measuring cup this must be...oh, yes, it's the two cups of milk, minus the two tablespoons used to make the cornstarch slurry, although the recipe was not clear about whether the two tablespoons were in addition to the two cups, or should be subtracted from the two cups. I took the subtraction route. It's messier that way. I was beginning to be excited by the possibility that this one recipe might create the single biggest mess in my kitchen in living memory.

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Here one thing gets stirred into another, and then that goes into another bowl and all gets returned to the stove for a crucial four minutes at a rolling boil.

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The instruction: in the unlikely even of unforeseen caramel flecks, pour through a sieve. No caramel flecks, but given all the other little steps, I thought pouring through a sieve was in order just in case it would help make the eventual ice cream amaze its tasters with its Ultimate Smooth mouth feel.

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And then to cool, supposedly in a Ziploc bag. Would you pour just boiled, still boiling-hot ice cream base into a Ziploc bag? I thought not. So I used—what else?—another bowl, suspended in a much larger bowl that I filled with a lot of ice and water.

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I had a lot of time to reflect as I waited and stirred and checked the temperature, and tried to keep from splashing water into the precious brown goo. One point of reflection: I would have to sieve the mixture a second time, because adding the essential cream cheese mixture post-sieve, as the recipe required,  had left white cream cheese specks dotted throughout.

No problem at all! The ice cream maker has a wide opening, so how hard can it be to sieve the mixture directly into it, straining out the pesky white bits? Stella! I'm sure you knew the answer would have to involve another giant mess!

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I had not included the ice cream maker apparatus in my running tally of required bowls and tools until my full sink made it plain that more dirty dishes had been created in the service of amazing ice cream.

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The big surprise as the frozen ice cream went into a freezer container to ripen in the real cold? The amount produced fills about half of a container that is a size smaller than the container the Simple Vanilla Ice Cream recipe usually fills. In other words, lots of bowls and tools and mess for not much ice cream.

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There's no required happy ending in a food blog post, no money shot of the host taking a bite with the guest or lucky audience member while both close their eyes, saying "Mmmmmmm. Ohhhhhh. MMMMMMMMmmmm," and so on. At least not in this food blog post, not today.

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The ice cream is good. It is smooth, rich, creamy, caramel-y, and salty. My built-in ice cream maven pronounced it very good, although the caramel taste might be a bit dark. Two friends said it's good.

Is it nine bowls good? Twenty minute kitchen clean-up good? I haven't decided. You try it, or one of its sister recipes from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams At Home, Jeni Britton Bauer's new cookbook. The news story that set me on my multi-bowl/mega-mess way includes two recipes in addition to salty caramel ice cream: "The darkest chocolate ice cream in the world," and "Honeyed peanut ice cream with dark chocolate freckles."

The bad news? The procedure for each ice cream looks just like the one I survived.

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