Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream

Tara O’Brady

Indians make something they call espresso, but it’s unlike any espresso you’d see in Italy; it’s actually closer to a Greek frappé, a bold brew of instant coffee whipped with an enthusiastic amount of sugar, and then combined with hot water and milk.

I’ve been a longtime fan of that coffee, so when I was first introduced to the Vietnamese version, a drink with very much the same uncompromising intensity, I was sold. When I decided to freeze it, well, then I was lost.

This is my full-stop favorite ice cream. A voluptuous mix of evaporated milks and cream gets infused with ground coffee, then chilled, churned, and swirled with caramel. Easy peasy, that’s that, and you’re left with an ice cream worthy of any and all accolades.

  • 1 (14-ounce/400 g) can evaporated milk
  • 1 (14-ounce/400 g) can sweetened condensed milk 
  • 1 1/2 cups (355 ml) heavy cream 
  • 2 ounces (60 g) coffee beans, ground (see Note) 
  • Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract 
  • Generous pinch of fine-grain sea salt 
  • Espresso Caramel and/or Candied Cacao Nibs (recipes follow)

Note: Grind regular or decaffinated coffee beans to a medium grind. For a milder, rounded flavor, use 2 tablespoons of instant espresso powder or 3 tablespoons instant coffee powder instead of ground beans.

Chocolate fudge can take the place of the caramel.

Combine the evaporated milk, condensed milk, cream, coffee, vanilla, and salt in a saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, whisking often, until the mixture begins to steam. Remove from the heat and let steep for 20 minutes.

Using a fine-meshed strainer or a standard strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter, strain the liquid into a bowl. Cover and chill for at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight. Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s directions.

Spoon a third of the ice cream into a lidded storage container. Smooth the top, and pour over a few tablespoons of the caramel in long stripes. With the tip of a knife, lightly marble the caramel into the ice cream. Layer in half of the remaining ice cream, splatter with more caramel, then swirl again. Repeat the layers once more, ending with a drizzle of caramel. There will be caramel left over, so cover and refrigerate it for later. Cover the ice cream and freeze for at least 6 hours. Enjoy as is or sprinkle the ice cream with Candied Cacao Nibs just before serving.

Candied Cacao Nibs
Makes approximately 1/2 cup (125 ml)

  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (45 g) cacao nibs
  • 1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter

Note: Making the caramel and coating the cacao nibs goes fast, taking maybe 5 minutes total; be sure to have everything ready by the stove, and don’t leave the pan unattended at any point.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a wide, heavy skillet over medium heat, warm the sugar for a minute, without stirring. Scatter the cacao nibs over the sugar and leave the pan undisturbed until the sugar begins to melt. With a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, quickly stir the cacao nibs into the liquid sugar, incorporating any unmelted sugar as you go. Once most of the sugar has coated the nibs, remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the butter. Immediately spread the cacao nibs onto the prepared baking sheet, pressing them into an even layer with the back of the spoon or spatula. Leave to cool.

Break the cacao nibs into tiny clusters by hand. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.

Espresso Caramel
Makes about 2/3 cup (150 ml)

  • 1/2 cup (105 g) packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup, honey, or glucose
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) heavy cream
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon finely ground espresso beans or espresso powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Note: Leftover caramel can be used on pound cake or plain ice cream, or stirred into a milkshake or warm milk. Any and all of these can be made all the more enticing with a share of whiskey.

In a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the brown sugar, butter, corn syrup, and salt, stirring until the butter has melted. Pour in the cream and espresso powder. Bring to a boil, whisking until the mixture is smooth and the sugar dissolves. Lower the heat and simmer, undisturbed, for 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally. If you are making this ahead of time, cover and refrigerate until needed, then rewarm gently before using.

Yield: 
Makes about 1 quart (1 L)

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