Monday, February 5, 2018

Peanut and red date ice milk

I love ice cream. No, that’s a lie. I adore ice cream. And my husband is even crazier for the stuff. But sometimes I crave a frozen dessert that is a little bit less sweet and a lot more refreshing, and that’s when I long for ice milk.

For some strange reason, though, ice milk has fallen out of fashion. Perhaps this is because ice cream is just so popular. Plus, ice milk sounds like it would be the cheaper cousin of ice cream, some sort of lesser being hiding in the back of a discount frozen food aisle. And yet, because there are so few fats and often much less sugar in ice milk, its flavors explode easily on the tongue. No barriers stand in the way between you and utter delight.

And that’s why I came up with this recipe. And just for the record, no milk is involved. This is vegan heaven, for peanuts and Chinese red dates are the main ingredients, along with a sprinkle of rice to smooth out the texture and a touch of sugar or sugar substitute, if you really want to make this totally guilt free.

This is pretty much the same recipe as the one for peanut milk in All Under Heaven, but I upped the amount of red dates to give it more of a natural sweetness. You don't really taste the dates except as a sort of suggestion floating around the back of your mind, telling you that a bit of magic is at work here. This combination ends up being subtle and delicious. 

Two simple ingredients
Peanut milk is one of those Chinese ideas that really should be adopted with glee all over the world. It’s just that delicious and just that much of a no-brainer. 

Instead of the vibrant nutty flavor of toasted peanuts, though, what you end up with is something smooth and delicately flavored. This is comfort food of the first order. When I lived in Taiwan, people almost invariably drank this in winter as a hot pick-me-up or a nourishing breakfast. But I could see other possibilities on the horizon as it gradually turned into a cool summer refresher, and that's when I came up with the idea of turning this into ice milk.

In the interest of full disclosure, one bit of work required here, and that has to do with the straining. It honestly is just a tiny pain in the butt to strain the liquid out of the ground peanuts. To combat this, I use two conical sieves: one with holes on the inside to trap the larger particles and one with a fine screen on the outside to ensure that the milk is as smooth as satin; two regular sieves would also work as well, as long as you have a fine-meshed one on the outside. 

In the blender
You might think that it would be just fine to dump everything into the saucepan and do away with the straining, but be assured that this extra step is totally worth it because the texture becomes absolutely remarkable. A high-speed blender helps things immeasurably, too, for it pulverizes the peanuts like nothing else and so allows you to extract every last mote of flavor.

The key to success here is to simmer the milk for a few minutes, as this not only cooks the nut and date milk, but also thickens it and gives it a custardy texture that translates well into a tongue-cosseting ice milk.

I like to make the peanut mixture a day or two ahead of when I plan to serve it so that that little bit of hard work is behind me and the milk gets to chill thoroughly, which speeds up the freezing process. Then, a couple of hours before serving time, I freeze the milk in two batches in my ice cream maker before popping the results in the freezer. My guests are always happy with this surprisingly delicious end to the meal.

Peanut and red date ice milk chez Huang
Huángjiā huāshēngnái hóngzăo bīngshā 黃家花生奶紅棗冰沙
Makes about 6 cups | 1.5 liters

12 ounces | 340 g raw peanuts, preferably skinned and definitely very fresh
1 cup | 100 g pitted Chinese red dates of any size
Water and boiling water, as needed
2 tablespoons raw rice of any kind
The peanut & date solids
6 cups | 1.5 l boiling water
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup sweetener (sugar, sugar substitute, agave, whatever you like), or to taste

1. The night before you plan to make this, place the peanuts in a medium work bowl and cover them by at least 1 inch | 2 cm of cool tap water. Place the pitted dates in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water by at least 2 inches | 4 cm, as these will absorb much more of the water. The next morning, drain and rinse the peanuts, but do not drain the dates, as that soaking water will taste fantastic.

2. Set a coarse sieve or colander chinois inside a similarly shaped sieve (see headnotes), and place this over a heavy 2 quart | 2 liter saucepan. Add the nuts, the dates, date water, and rice to your blender. Add 4 cups | 1 liter of boiling water to the blender, cover the blender, and gradually increase the speed to high. Pulverize the peanuts for at least a couple of minutes to extract as much flavor as possible. Scrape the solids and milk into your prepared sieves. Use a large silicone spatula to squeeze as much of the liquid out as possible, and then return the solids to the blender. Add the rest of the boiling water, whiz them together for a couple of minutes, and repeat the straining step. Discard the solids.

3. Add the salt and sweetener to the liquid and set the pan over medium-high heat. Stir the milk and scrape the bottom often to keep it from burning. As soon as it comes to a full boil, reduce the heat and continue to cook and stir the milk for a few minutes until it has thickened. Taste the milk to ensure that there is no raw peanut flavor, and add more sweetener if you think it needs it. Remove the pan from the heat, allow it to come to room temperature, and chill in a closed container or jar.
Simmer until thickened & creamy

4. A few hours before serving, pour half of the milk into your ice cream maker. (I’m assuming it holds around 1 quart | 1 liter; if not, adjust the amount as needed.) You don’t want to overfill the ice cream maker because the liquid will expand considerably as it freezes. Freeze the peanut milk, scrape out the ice milk into a resealable container, cover, and store in the freezer. Repeat with the second half of the milk. (Most ice cream makers require a rest period between sessions, so check your manual.)

5. Remove the ice milk from the freezer about 15 minutes before serving if it is freshly made. If the ice milk has frozen solid, it will take longer to soften, so adjust your time accordingly. Serve with black sesame candy wafers or cookies, or scoop it into cones, or make it into as great ice milk soda. This is an incredibly satisfying dessert, especially after a heavy or spicy meal.

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