The depths of summer are upon us, and even people who would never think of eating ice cream are dreaming of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer. Ice cream shows up all over the world, but I have to insist that Italians have a particular way with the stuff. Chef Mario Batali shares the Italian way.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You're in Italy now more often than I am. What types of gelato are you eating over there?
Mario Batali: There are three ways to look at it. There are the trendy, molecular gastronomy people who are out there making odd gelatos with bitter, strange, non-fruity things, which are good in that kind of restaurant experience. Then there's the traditional gelato of Florence and Bologna that I'm very familiar with, which is mostly milk, explosive fruits and incredibly intense extractions of nuts and chocolates. Then there's Sicilian gelato, which is made with ricotta, no eggs, and their similar intense primizia. They get better fruit earlier than anyone else does because of their southern position and their really sunny disposition.
For me, my favorite is still very simple. I love to go taste crema -- I love to understand when they really have cocomero, the watermelon sorbet. The beautiful thing about Italian culture is even on your way to dinner, you might stop for an ice cream.
LRK: Isn't it wonderful? After dinner you always need to walk.
MB: Definitely. During the walk after dinner to the piazza, or in and around the piazza, it's enjoying this beautiful gelato. It's the most magnificent thing because it has an almost taffy pull to it -- when you pull it away as you lick, get a little chomp on it with your lips.
LRK: What's really the difference between gelato and ice cream?
MB: Ice cream celebrates -- like most things American -- the abundance of our magnificent products. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your love for it, it's made mostly with cream, so it's fatter. Which is, because we have more cream and more dairy, not a bad thing.
It creates a very intense, creamy mouth feel. What that cream does is coat your palate and often allows a little bit less of the intensity of the flavor of whatever it is that you're looking to celebrate, like a strawberry or a peach, to get to the actual taste buds.
When Italians make gelato, it's mostly with milk. That lower fat content allows the intensity of flavor to become even more quickly evident on your tongue.
LRK: Are there tricks to getting that kind of intensity? It practically is like a trumpet going full bore.
MB: Yes. It's understanding that often what looks like really good fruit in the store isn't necessarily great for gelato. It's often fruit that might be in the bin on the way out that you're looking for, because you're looking for it to be hyper-ripened. That is to say a peach can't be just perfect for eating out-of-hand if you want to make peach gelato. It has to be almost to the point that it's going over, in which case then you really get that super maximum sugar and that super ripe flavor. Which, when you thin it down with a little milk or cream in whichever recipe you decide to use, it allows itself to shine a little bit better. It can't be fruit that's perfect for eating out-of-hand. It has to be almost on the edge of going over.
LRK: I'm thinking about what happens when you leave things like stone fruits -- peaches, plums and nectarines -- in a basket on the counter. They begin to almost shrivel and their sugars become so concentrated. That would probably be the time to use them to make a gelato.
MB: Exactly. It would be better to wait a day or two if it was almost there, if you're really looking to make the best gelato or sorbetto.
LRK: Do you have to use an ice cream machine?
MB: You mean like an electric one? No, you can use the old hand churner just like at the Iowa State Fair. They're all doing the exact same thing, which is very much like cooking. Cooking is heat transfer, this is chill transfer.
Most people's problem in making ice cream or gelato is they tend to slightly over-churn it. It's not going to get as firm as you want it to be in the actual churn. You're going to come up with something that looks like very thick, custardy stuff that's cold. Then you're going to temper it in the freezer for two hours. Then you have gelato or ice cream.
LRK: What kind of flavors are you doing now in the restaurants?
MB: My traditional big flavors are whatever happens to be almost rotten in the fruit market right now.
LRK: You're such a cheap date. I love it.
MB: I'm making cherry ice cream this afternoon here in Michigan, because they're just exploding right now. I bought a couple pounds that are just starting to get that little raisiny look to their skin, in which case they'll be perfect.
LRK: I'm going to get in the car and start driving now, and I'll see you probably around dinnertime.
MB: You'll be here just in time for dinner.