October 1, 2009

Yakama Plum and Armagnac Ice cream

It's been a few years since I first tasted plum and Armagnac ice cream and I haven't tasted it again until now. The heady combination can be a popular offering in trendy food shops in England, although inspired from traditional French recipes that combine Armagnac (brandy) with custard.

Generally prune plums are used in this ice cream coming from the famous Agen region in France. Oddly enough, in Canada the same plum variety exists, however it goes by the name 'Italian prune plum', and hardly costs anything compared with the extreme price tag of the semi-dried Agen prunes in English supermarkets. Now just to cause a little confusion I'm going to admit the truth and say that I guess my patience was limited...so I didn't wait the two extra weeks for the Italian prune plum season to start, and instead made the ice cream using an earlier plum variety called Yakama (where's the logic?).....a very sweet, easy to eat and egg-shaped plum originating in the Yakima valley in Washington.

When I returned to Canada I was incredibly excited at the prospect of making plum and Armagnac ice cream, and using local plums none-the-less. There was just one problem. I couldn't find the Armagnac.

Why Armagnac you ask? Why not use just any brandy? Well, it's really down to taste and admittedly a touch of exotica. It's similar to Cognac in that it is also distilled from wine, although it requires the use of different stills (I couldn't tell you much about that though), but I find the taste to be smoother, and a bit more complex and intriguing than Cognac.

As you probably guessed, Armagnac is to the Armagnac region in South-west France as Champagne is to the region of Champagne. The first time I tried to buy Armagnac in Paris I'm quite sure I did a great job (unintentionally of course) of totally insulting the wine merchant by asking for his cheapest (cooking quality) Armagnac. Alas, I was young...and a poor student, so every penny counted! Not only did I not know that the Armagnac region is one of the oldest regions in France for producing brandy (even older than Cognac), I also did not realise that it's mostly made by smaller producers, as opposed to the 'big names' coming out of Cognac, so naturally the status of the product is just as high as the price due to it's small-scale production and intensive techniques.

On our trip back to Europe this Spring I was determined to buy Armagnac. Luckily, on the way back from Spain we took the night train to Paris and decided to stay part of the day there on the way back to London. In a few fleeting hours we managed to do quite a lot, including finding both Pierre Hermé's pastry shop (love at first sight...) and an appropriate bottle of Armagnac, purchased with a 'knowing' look (hmm...sure), and with virtually no speech at all (okay, so my French isn't horrible, but given my last experience trying to buy Armagnac I stayed well away from using the phrase "less expensive" for fear of great insult).

So anyway, this ice cream turned out to be extremely yummy, and thank goodness, because 3 years is just too long a wait between sessions of ice cream enjoyment. It's a wonderfully creamy combination, mainly down to the new technique I've uncovered...hee hee...which I'll share below, and best enjoyed on its own so to appreciate the subtle flavours of the soft, sweet plum combined with a hint of brandy. You could add more brandy but you'd run the risk of the ice cream not freezing properly because of the higher alcohol content. If using Agen plums or 'Italian prune plums' then you may want to increase the sugar slightly as they're generally more tart than Yakamas.

Serves at least 10

For the fruit purée:

10 small-medium plums (a variety that is easily halved/not too fibrous)
2 tbsps water
just under 1/3 cup Armagnac/brandy
100g icing (confectioners) sugar

Halve the plums, remove pits, and stew in a saucepan over a low heat with the water and brandy until pulpy. Add the icing (confectioners) sugar then sieve the entire mixture into another bowl or blend in a really good blender until totally smooth.

For the ice cream:

This is the best method I've found for making a beautifully smooth ice cream. You make what is essentially a mousse instead of going for a traditional custard base.

500 ml whipping cream
100g granulated white sugar
150ml water
4 large egg yolks

As if making a buttercream, start by making a sugar syrup. There's no need to stir, just add the water and sugar in a small saucepan and just bring it to a boil. Put a small plate in the fridge. The syrup will take around 10 minutes until ready . You can test if the sugar syrup's at the candy ball stage by dropping a little onto the cold plate. Pick a bit off the plate and stretch it between your index finger and thumb- if the syrup creates strings between your fingers then it's ready to go. You could use a candy thermometer but this is more fun!

Place the egg yolks in a bowl and start whisking right away (an electric mixer is best), adding the syrup in a constant trickle. Keep whisking until the mixture has attained a mousse-like consistency. Whisk in the cream then gently stir in the plum purée. Pour into the ice cream maker and let churn for 25-30 minutes. Then transfer to a container and freeze for at least another 3 hours before serving.

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