Who could have known what would happen when I got back to La Cusinga and turned on the ice cream maker. It seems that Dos Pinos, the only commercial ice cream producer in the country is just not fulfilling the needs of a country (or at least a specific region) full of ice cream eaters. It sems that their pallid flavors and ice cream product (!) filled with preservatives is just not cutting the proverbial mustard with aficionados of the real deal. From the time I fired up the machine for the first run until now, I have been struggling to keep a minimum of three flavors in my freezers. All of my desserts are now accompanied by ice cream and I have begun to sell it to other small restaurants in our community and will begin purveying it at the feria in Uvita soon. And when I go back to the States in July, there will be a second machine waiting for me so I can keep up with the demand.
When I packed my suitcases full of supplies, clothing and equipment necessary to my returning to my status as Chef of the Jungle, one of the things high up on my list of necessaries was an ice cream maker. In my previous incarnation here at La Cusinga we’d purchased one of the smaller Cuisinart models, the one that resembles, purely for reasons of quaintness and kitsch, an old fashioned ice cream maker. It did what it was supposed to do, make ice creams, only it did it in smallish quantities and was not constructed in a fashion sturdy enough for even our mini-industrial production. We (or I) blazed through that one in the first month, destroying first the slender and fragile whisk that turns the ice cream against the frozen drum, and ultimately the drum itself, which did not survive its four foot drop to the concrete floor.
So this time, well-educated as to the limitations of the smaller model, I bought the biggest model that Cuisinart makes; a modern looking brushed aluminum baby with a two quart drum. It came packed in a large box and my first challenge was how to get it packed into a suitcase for traveling. I had also purchased a heavy duty Cuisinart food processor and needed to devise a method of packing it as well. I had one large wheeled suitcase, but it was immediately apparent that if I wished to get both machines and my modest wardrobe down to Costa Rica I was going to need another suitcase of equal size.
I cruised on down to Austin’s Academy; a giant box store that despite its name that makes it sound like a kinky phone-sex site, is instead a wonder of a sporting goods and clothing store with travel necessaries thrown in for good measure. I only wanted the large suitcase, but ended up buying a four piece luggage set, that nested, one inside the other, for a whopping $49.95. I immediately went on Craigslist, advertised the three smaller pieces and sold them that afternoon for $40. Not a bad deal.
I did a test run with the big suitcase to the West Coast to say my good-byes for six months and to do a clothing exchange with some items in my Dad’s garage in Oregon. On the flight from Austin to Portland the new suitcase developed an immediate split alongside the zipper and had to be duct-taped in San Francisco in order to make it back to Austin without spilling my odd lots into the baggage compartment of the plane. I trotted back to Acadamy with the damaged bag and the bespeckled, complexion challenged, possible highschool graduate of a checker let me do a quickie exchange without even examining the merchandise. Had I been of a mind to, I could have taken another four piece set rather than just the largest suitcase that held the others, but I was tired of Craigslist.
This time the packing was for real and I had decided that the best tack would be to put each piece of equipment on top of a few teeshirts in the center of the suitcase and pile my other clothing around the boxes in an attempt to cushion them. I had removed my precious cargo from the packing crates it had come in, but it still rested inside the factory boxes, which were of substantial size. It was immediately apparent that the closing and final zipping of each of the suitcases would indeed be challenging. Undaunted, I packed on and when it came time to do the final zip it took having my brother in law, Pete, kneeling on the suitcases while I tugged at the not nearly large enough zipper pulls to get the damn things shut. But shut they finally did, packed near to bursting and man were they heavy.
It was clear at the Continental Airlines scales just how heavy. Each of the bags weighed in at just about 65 pounds. Yeah they were a little over weight, but I was proud of my equal weight distribution. I paid the overage, just happy to be able to get those monsters into the cargo hold. I got on the plane with impunity and when I opened them on the other end the merchandise proved to have traveled perfectly and there were those happy little notices from the airline security that they had even been opened. I spent a moment or two wondering how they had gotten them closed but then decided I’d rather not know.
Once at La Cusinga I eagerly popped open the ice cream machine box and got down to the business of unpacking the parts and reading the manual. It seemed simple enough and I eagerly and happily leapt into my newest chef skill; “ice cream maker.” The first batch was fittingly, vanilla, just to keep it classic and see how my new toy worked and it came out just fine. I was ready to get tropical on this baby and shortly thereafter followed banana, chocolate banana, mango and strawberry. And yes, there are plenty of strawberries here in the lower mountain areas of Costa Rica. It took a little bit of getting used to working with different fruit purees as they all held different amounts of water, and I found that the denser fruits, particularly banana and mango took quite well to the simple mix with cream and milk.
The next big breakthrough came when an old friend, the erstwhile Brit, Billy Bateman, showed up at my door with bags of organic polvo de cacao. That is, freshly dried, unfined cacao beans ground and unprocessed. Included in them is the crunch of the bean, but also the pure cocoa butter that is fined out of commercial cocoa powders. I’ve know Billy since virtually the first day I set foot in this country and I’ve known well that he is now and always will be a man with a scheme, a plan, a brilliant moneymaking idea. I had seen Billy design and hang bamboo curtains, render models of bamboo villages and patios, middleman vehicle sales and live penniless high in the Costa Rican mountains helping to construct a model “free village” that would provide a home to all who contributed.
This was Billy’s latest dream project; to act as the liason between the cacao grower and the wave of chefs (I would be the first) who would put his polvo in huge demand. Billy’s dream wasn’t going to end up making him a fat purse of money, but it provided me with a wonderfully unique medium upon which to take my next ice cream step. I futzed and ditzed with the polvo a bit before realizing that it worked best, simply sieved (which was no easy proposition) and added to a classic ice cream mix of cream and milk. I did make on major recipe change by substituting our local raw sugar, tapa dulce, which comes in huge dense rounds, for the commercial sugar the recipe called for.
And the resulting ice cream was amazing. It was different both flavor-wise and texturally. It wasn’t chocolate and it wasn’t cocoa. It was truly unique and the crunch in each bite from the ground beans was unlike anything I’d ever encountered in ice cream. Almost unwilling to believe how good it was I offered tastes to some hotel guests; my unknowing guinea pigs. They were effusive in their praise and you could see that need for another bite shining in their little obsessive eyes. This one was a real winner and I realized that I might be the only one of the face of the planet doing it this way. What a find!
I served it, initially, just by itself, alone in a bowl, but couldn’t help thinking that it needed another texture, smoother and more unctuous, to really bring out the subtlety of the flavors and the natural crunch it provided. I had been experimenting with a couple of different cake recipes and one of them was called Jose Maria’s Flourless Chocolate Cake. It was a simple melt of chocolate with egg yolks, sugar and (shhhh) three tablespoons of flour folded into melted chocolate and butter, followed by stiffly whipped egg whites. In classic soufflé cake form, it rose during baking and then fell into a dense fudgy mass upon removal from the oven. It was a match made in heaven. Just a thin slice of the chocolate cake with a scoop of the cacao ice cream was the perfect combination.
It seemed I had created a monster and when Billy tasted it he brought a stream of guests through the restaurant for tastes and with any luck, a full dinner followed by the “Life By Chocolate” dessert. His moneymaking instincts kicked in and he wanted to know if I could possibly manufacture enough of the ice cream to sell at the local feria to promote his polvo de cacao sales. Other restaurants heard of it and I sold a batch of half quart containers to my friend Tra at the Tucan Hotel. This was quickly followed with a sale to the lovely Anja at Mercado la Roca who would put it on the menu as “Helado de Chef David”. I was making the polvo de cacao everyday and had maxed out my production. The drum of the ice cream maker needed to go back into the freezer for a minimum of eight hours to make the best possible ice creams so it seemed, sadly, as if I was limited to one run a day.
In addition to the chocolate I discovered another wonderful taste treat by using the small local blackberries I bought from Roger at the Perez feria for my next “experimental” ice cream. The Costa Rican blackberries grow on the sides of the mountains that surround the farming valley of San Isidro and are tiny and quite tart. They also have an intensely pure blackberry flavor, far truer that the fat (and pulpy by comparison) blackberries that I was used to back in the States. They required a good run in the food processor to puree, and then needed to be passed through a fine mesh screen to remove the seeds. The resulting puree was tart and richly colored. I learned quickly just how fast a clean whilte chef’s shirt and blackberries find each other.
I knew I wanted to temper the tartness and intensity of the blackberries slightly more than my regular milk and cream base would for the ice cream, so I cooked a custard with milk and egg yolks and added cream and the blackberry puree to that. The ice cream that this marriage produced was rich, creamy, dense and both deeply flavored and colored. After I made the first batch I wrote my sister and told her that it may have been one of the five best things I’ve ever made. I try to temper my enthusiasm somewhat in describing my creations to people, but this one was too good not to rave about.
While I did indeed serve it solo in a bowl, I decided that it too wanted an accompaniment so I went for an old classic. Using a pound cake recipe that I had gleaned from the food pages of the NY Times, I substituted the zest of our local mandarinas for their suggested orange zest and that was IT. I cooked a simple fruit syrup of sugar and the mandarina juice and poured it over the top as the cake came out of the oven to intensify the citrus flavor. Not satisfied, I used the leftover blackberry puree to make a slightly sweetened sauce and finally brought the three; blackberry ice cream, blackberry sauce and mandarina pound cake, together. It was the perfect anti-chocolate dessert and I loved it. Fortunately my guests did as well and the two desserts became my weekend offerings when we finally opened The Gecko to the public. “One and one” was a typical dessert order, but truth be told, I sell so much more of just the chocolate combination, It’s a hard one to resist.
So I return to the US in July to find another Cuisinart ice cream make waiting for me at my sister’s house in Austin. I need to gear up my production for the upcoming season and I also need to expand my repertoire to include far more of the tropical flavors available to me; guanabana (which I have made, and is a good one). coconut, guava and more. Additionally a whole range of sorbets await me, including a fabulous recipe for lemongrass/mango that I just found. I have created a monster.