Occasional dispatches from The Food section’s volunteer recipe testers
When I agreed to test the Woodberry Kitchen recipe for Bay Ice Cream that ran in this week’s section — it’s dessert, not work! — the ingredient that initially perplexed me was the bay leaves. How young and naive I was.
I should have taken it on faith that I could coax a delicate minty flavor out of the herb based on an ice cream sample that chef-owner Spike Gjerde provided. I didn’t realize that the more difficult taste to replicate would be the hot pepper steeped in the base mixture of milk, cream and sugar.
As part of his dedication to local ingredients, Gjerde uses fish peppers to give the ice cream some spice. While the fish pepper sounds like an exotic Asian variety, in fact, it’s a native of the Chesapeake Bay region. He gets tons of fish peppers, but they’re not so easy for the likes of you and me to come by.
Batch No. 1: Way back when it was kind of cold outside, I made the ice cream with a pickled fish pepper sent from Woodberry Kitchen. The result seemed pretty darned close to the original ice cream sample, although one taster said even my assiduous rinsing didn’t quite eliminate the edge of the pepper’s pickled state.
It was an admirable effort, but we still needed to find a more widely available replacement pepper because not everyone would have access to Gjerde’s personal stash.
Batch No. 2: Next, I tried using a habanero pepper. I’ll admit I probably let it steep in the milk mixture for too long, as I was trying to work with the fact that the flavors would change after the ice cream was churned and frozen. Turns out, it was close to 25 minutes, which helped create an ice cream that was hotter/spicier than heck. I started coughing on my first taste.
On to Batch No. 3. This time we went in a totally different direction, turning to those cute baby bell “sweet” peppers sold in clamshell packages in the produce department. The level of spice was fine, but the pepper’s raw, vegetal flavor overwhelmed everything else.
At this point, I felt a bit despondent; I’m not used to failure.
Batch No. 4: Then we hit upon the notion of a small red (Thai) bird’s-eye pepper, taken out after the first few minutes of steeping.
I didn’t expect to have such a hard time finding said pepper. Trips to Safeway, Whole Foods and Harris Teeter yielded nothing. I said a little prayer and drove to my favorite ethnic food shop, India A-1 Grocery on Lee Highway in Arlington. They had tons of small chili peppers — but they were green. I desperately shoved my hand in to the bin, hoping I’d find one or two that had turned red. I did.
The clerk laughed at me when I went to pay for my few measly specimens, as the woman next to me had a whole bag of them. But I guarded them like a hard-won prize. The next day, the brightest red one took a mere five-minute bath in the ice cream base, along with the bay leaves and a handful of pithy orange peel.
I couldn’t wait for everyone to try it; bringing in ice cream samples via bus and Metro has a certain element of risk. The spice was there: just enough for an intriguing kick but not so much that it lingered on the tongue. A winner at last. See if you agree.