Vegan ice cream is beautifully creamy and smooth, managing to be light and luscious without any grainy or icy bits, even after a few days in the freezer.
If you’re the kind of ice-cream lover who thinks the more butterfat and egg yolks in a pint the better, you’ll be tempted to skip the vegan chapter of the new “Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream” cookbook (Ecco, 2015). Why contemplate vegan roasted banana ice cream when there is a recipe for the original dairy-rich version 60 pages earlier?
That was my attitude when I first dived into the book, a detail-oriented tome by Laura O’Neill, Ben Van Leeuwen and Pete Van Leeuwen, with Olga Massov. O’Neill and the Van Leeuwen brothers own the popular Van Leeuwen ice cream shops in New York and Los Angeles, and a fleet of buttercup-yellow ice cream trucks.
Their earnest book offers 100 recipes for signature ice creams, sauces and other confections. Gleefully, I marked the flavors that I couldn’t wait to make — rhubarb crumble, brown butter pecan and their superior fresh ginger, with its bright, clear flavor punctuated by chewy bits of the candied root.
I earmarked that vegan roasted banana, too, but in the name of thoroughness, not because I believed it could possibly be as good as the silky, not-too-sweet custard-based recipes I was testing as the summer days grew hotter and longer.
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When the time came for vegan, I followed the exacting directions to the letter, concocting my own cashew milk, caramelizing ripe banana slices, running around town in search of pure cocoa butter. I steeped, strained and blended twice. When it came out of my ice cream machine, I tasted it without much enthusiasm.
And that vegan roasted banana ice cream blew my mind.
While all the dairy ice creams I had churned from the book were delightful and well balanced, they were classic rather than revelatory. The charm lay with the roster of flavors, a well-made mélange of the expected (maple walnut, salted caramel, espresso) swirled with the sophisticated (tarragon, Sichuan peppercorn with cherry compote, cardamom-rose water), and liberally sprinkled with the whimsical (salted peanut butter with chocolate-covered pretzels; rocky road with homemade marshmallows).
If you buy the book for these carefully constructed recipes, you will not go wrong.
But it’s the vegan ice cream that will change your life, or at least make you rethink any vegan prejudices.
It was beautifully creamy and smooth, managing to be light and luscious without any grainy or icy bits, even after a few days in my freezer. Even better, because there are no eggs in the recipe, the deep flavor of the roasted bananas zipped to the front of the tongue: crisp, intense, buttery and browned.
The vegan mint chocolate chip was also excellent and bright tasting, and was the one my friends kept asking for more of, leaving the regular ice creams to melt and weep.
Most vegan ice creams are based on soy products, nut milk or coconut milk, and rely on some kind of stabilizer (guar gum, carrageenan, xanthan) to produce a creamy texture.
O’Neill and the Van Leeuwens, who are adamantly against using stabilizers in any of their products, came up with a different and effective method. They use a combination of coconut oil and cocoa butter to add the necessary fat content, along with a combination of homemade cashew milk and canned coconut milk to keep the base flavor neutral enough to take on the taste of whatever aromatic you add. The mint chocolate chip tastes like mint and chocolate, not like coconut or cashew.
For those who will never consider making vegan ice creams, or are not up for a bit of project cooking, there are 90 other inventive recipes to choose from. But it’s the 10 cream-free variations that make this cookbook rise to the top.
VEGAN ROASTED BANANA ICE CREAM
Makes about 1½ quarts
1½ cups raw, unsalted cashews
4 medium bananas, preferably somewhat speckled but not brown, peeled and cut into ¼-inch slices
6 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin coconut oil
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon plus a pinch kosher salt
¾ cup sugar
½ cup cocoa butter, available at baking supply stores and online
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons coconut milk
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted (optional)
1. To make the cashew milk, place the cashews in a large bowl and add water to cover by a couple of inches. Soak cashews overnight.
2. In the morning, drain the cashews and place them in a blender with about 1¾ cups fresh water. Blend until smooth. If you use a Vitamix, there will be no need to strain — the milk will be perfectly smooth; for other blenders, check the consistency and, if necessary, strain the cashew milk through a fine-mesh strainer. Cashew milk will keep well, covered and refrigerated, for up to four days.
3. To roast the bananas, heat the oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the middle. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, toss the bananas, 2 tablespoons coconut oil, brown sugar and pinch of salt. Spread on prepared baking sheet until caramelized, about 15 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely.
4. Put ¼ cup water into a small saucepan over medium to low heat. Add sugar and cook, stirring frequently, until sugar has dissolved. Add cocoa butter, remaining 4 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons coconut oil and remaining salt. Stir until melted.
5. Pour the sugar mixture into in a food processor (or use a tall 2-quart container and an immersion blender), and add the coconut milk and 1 cup cashew milk. Blend until smooth. Add roasted bananas and blend again to combine until very smooth. Cover and refrigerate the ice cream base until chilled, one to two hours.
6. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. In the last minute of churning, add toasted walnuts, if desired, and churn until incorporated. Transfer the ice cream to a storage container and freeze up to seven days. Alternatively, you can serve it immediately. It will be the consistency of soft serve.