Sunday, March 8, 2009

Salty Sweet

When I was in elementary school, we learned about four tastes. We even did a science project about which was where on the tongue: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. I've forgotten the precise locations now. Much later, in college biochemistry, I learned for the first time about the elusive fifth taste, umami, relatively recently discovered by Japanese scientists. The name basically translates from the Japanese as "delicious," and interestingly the closest pure synthetic is the much-maligned MSG (also interestingly, the word umami is featured in the name of K and D's start-up; more on this in a future post when the website is out of alpha-testing).

And what, you might ask, combines all five of these tastes in perfect proportion? Ketchup! (Cue the ketchup jingle from A Prairie Home Companion. Maybe in addition to being delicious, umami is also a "natural mellowing agent?") More specifically, Heinz ketchup achieves the five-taste paradigm, according to Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating article in The New Yorker a few years ago.

But enough about ketchup. It's not like I'm going to offer a recipe for home-made ketchup today. There are some things that you should leave to the professionals! No, I want to focus on a combination of just two of the five essential flavors: salty and sweet. Much has been made recently of the combination, especially since word got out that Barack Obama likes Seattle's Fran's salted chocolate caramels. (Which, thanks to the generosity of A and K, we recently were able to sample. Let's just say that the flavor confirms that President Obama has good taste.)

Another way of combining the salty and sweet is in salted caramel ice cream. B thinks this might be the silkiest ice cream I make. The caramel offers depth and richness of flavor, and the salt adds a bright and impish twist! Every time I make it, I am astounded by the originality of taste. As a decadent dessert, I served salted caramel ice cream recently with this chocolate souffle cake (without the accompanying orange caramel sauce of the original Gourmet recipe), but it is equally delicious on its own. It may not be bitter or sour or umami, but it is a supreme expression of salty and sweet together. Enjoy!

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Makes a generous quart
Time: 20 min active, 3 hours total

1 c. sugar
1/4 c. water
1 vanilla bean or 1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. heavy cream
1 c. milk (non-fat OK)
1 t. flaky salt, such as Maldon, with more for sprinkling
6 egg yolks

Place sugar and water into a medium-sized heavy saucepan; if using vanilla bean, slice lengthwise and scrape seeds into saucepan. Then add pod to saucepan as well. Cook over medium heat until mixture turns a deep golden-brown caramel, swirling pan occasionally. Remove from heat immediately (mixture may continue to darken another shade after being taking off the heat), and add milk and cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Return to heat and stir frequently until caramel bits dissolve, approximately 2-3 minutes.

Place egg yolks in a medium bowl, and whisk hot milk-caramel mixture into yolks. Return entire mixture to saucepan and heat to 170-175 degrees on a candy thermometer. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Mix in 1 t. salt and vanilla extract, if using. Chill for 1 hour, covered. Freeze according to manufacturer's instructions, and then freeze completed ice cream for at least another hour before serving. Sprinkle each serving with a pinch of salt, to taste.

P.S. Can I just say that I love Daylight Saving Time? Short-term benefit: I had one less hour of call last night. Long-term benefit: it's still light outside! Win-win.

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