Monday, September 17, 2018

Fig leaf ice cream chez Huang

I’ve always been fascinated by two things in this recipe: the startlingly seductive flavor of fig leaves (which is Italian) and the use of cornstarch (which is Chinese, as well as from other parts of the world too, if we’re being honest).

Ok, three things: This can be a totally vegan ice cream and still be incredibly delicious.

Cornstarch here acts like egg yolks usually do in an ice cream: it makes the texture smoother, it miniaturizes the ice crystals, and it provides a satisfyingly creamy texture. 

My husband grew up on a series of military compounds in Taiwan, as his father was a colonel in the air force. J.H. has always had a pronounced sweet tooth, just like his father, and so ice cream of sorts was a more or less regular treat when he was a kid. 

The thing is, you couldn’t find ice cream in a store, and no one had ice cream trucks or, of course, ice cream makers, but what they did have was stores that would freeze your ice cream. You just had to provide the mix.

My husband remembers riding on a bicycle with his father and carrying two large tins filled with whatever Mom had whipped up. It sometimes was a mixture of powdered dry milk (a gift of the Americans then stationed on the island) boiled up with cornstarch and sugar to make a simple ice cream base, very similar to what we have here today. At other times soymilk or fruit juice took the place of milk, but cornstarch was always involved because that’s what gave the frozen dessert heft and texture. 
We're talking about amazing fragrance

Sometimes it was nothing more than sugar water cooked with cornstarch when the cupboards were empty. But with four little kids always craving something cold and sweet hanging around the house, his mother really couldn’t go wrong, no matter what she made. 

Freezing the ice cream was another thing altogether. It depended upon pure brawn and lots of experience. The liquid was poured into large pans set over ice (and probably salt, like an old-fashioned ice cream maker), and then this was stirred constantly with big spatulas until it froze up. Then the ice cream was packed back into the tins and rushed home by bicycle to feed the hungry hordes.

I have to point out that I have no idea why people don’t use cornstarch in their ice creams. Take one taste and you’ll agree. This is like silk, and it is less heavy, so you can eat more. Yay.

I’ve been entranced with the idea of fig leaves in ice cream for decades, ever since I first read about it in an old cookbook. I mean, fig leaves under a hot sun smell amazing. There are notes of vanilla, coconut, even nuts in there. You can toast them first, if you like, to get a (duh) toastier flavor, but it’s not necessary. 

I was visiting my friend Cynthia in Santa Rosa yesterday, and she shared some of her Brown Turkish figs topped with Humboldt Fog cheese, which pretty much sent me over the moon. And then I stepped out into her yard, checked out the tree, and went gaga over their bounty. 
Brown Turkish fig leaves

I took some cuttings, which I hope will eventually turn into little trees of my own. But what happened - my story does have a point, I promise - was that I trimmed off the leaves and left them on the kitchen counter. And it was like I had opened a spice drawer... their aromas became more insistent and seductive the longer they dried. And so I had to do something wonderful with them, and of course that involved dessert.

The milk and the sweetener in this recipe are open to interpretation. Today I used cashew milk and nut cream to emphasize the lightness of this figgy aroma and also to play off of its inherent nuttiness. Dairy works perfectly, as does pretty much anything reasonable. 

For the sugar I like agave syrup, again because it has a lighter flavor than honey, but also doesn’t make my mouth sour like sugar tends to do, and I do love the slight caramel tone that it gives the ice cream. I’ve toned down the sweetness, naturally, but you can amp it up. 

Add toasted coconut or nuts, if you like, or sprinkle the ice cream with something like reduced balsamic vinegar, saba, or even melted fig jam. Serve it with fresh or broiled or grilled figs. The possibilities are endless, really. Just be sure to do this before the first cold winds turn the fig leaves yellow. And get yourself a friend with a fig tree or two.

You can even make this vegan!
Fig leaf ice cream chez Huang
Huángjiā wúhuāguŏyè bīngqílín 黃家無花果葉冰淇淋
Taiwan Military Families cuisine crossed with Italian traditions
Makes about 1 quart | 1 liter

8 fresh or dried fig leaves, washed and stems removed
2 cups | 500 ml milk of any kind (dairy, nut, or coconut)
3 heaping tablespoons | 30 g cornstarch
2 cups | 500 ml cream of any kind (dairy, nut, or coconut)
Good pinch of sea salt
½ cup | 125 ml agave syrup, or other sweetener to taste

1. Place the fig leaves in a heavy saucepan and add the milk. Bring the milk almost to a boil over medium heat. When bubbles form along the edge, remove the pan from the heat and cover it for at least 15 minutes. Taste the milk, and if you want a stronger flavor, let the leaves steep longer. Strain out the leaves and discard them.

2. Put the cornstarch in a pitcher or bowl and slowly stir in the cream with a whisk so that you don’t have any lumps. Whisk in the infused milk, salt, and agave syrup into the cream, and then return this to the pan. 

Heat the leaves in your milk
3. Set the pan over medium heat and stir the bottom constantly with a whisk to prevent lumps from forming and the bottom from burning. When the mixture is almost ready to boil, it will have thickened up and have the texture of sour cream. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more sugar or salt or whatever else you want at this point.

4. Pour the thickened mixture through a sieve into a heatproof bowl or pitcher and let it cool down completely, and then refrigerate until cold. It will form a skin on top, but that’s all right – this will disappear when it’s churned.

5. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. Remove it to a freezer-safe container and freeze it for a day or two to develop its flavor. Serve with whatever sounds good. 


  1. I love your husband's ice cream memories. And the recipe sounds dreamy and doable. Thank you, Madame.
    Oh. I roast my figs with lemon and sugar. 🍋 You don't stir them much so they don't break up. I can them whole and then use them in spiced layer cake with pecans and cream cheese frosting. Kinda like carrot cake--with figs instead of 🥕🥕🥕