For the Deepest, Darkest Chocolate Ice Cream, Add Cocoa Nibs

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This ice cream is full-on crazy-dark chocolate. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

This is a story for the chocolate fans. The hardcore fans. The ones who shy away from chocolate desserts because they're always too light on the chocolate. The people who take their chocolate like goth kids take their souls: dark, moody, and bitter.

This is for you because I'm one of you. Hand me a dessert menu and my eyes glaze over the requisite chocolate option like it's not even there. Because it's usually not—not from a hardcore chocolate lover's point of view, anyway. Chocolaty? Sure. Maybe fudgy and brownie-esque, or milky like that "chocolate" milkshake made from vanilla ice cream and some syrup. Perhaps even "dark," if you're speaking to the type of novice who also counts 50 Shades of Grey as legit erotica. But not the intensely concentrated bitter and tart complexities of a real dark chocolate bar.

Today it's time to change that by whipping up a dessert that's not just chocolaty, but actually full-on crazy-dark chocolate, something as good and complex as the bar. Like any dark journey, getting there takes knowing your enemy and keeping a secret trick up your sleeve. So get out your three-pronged lightsaber, because we're heading to the dark side.

Milk vs. Dark Chocolate

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If you're feeling more Luke than Anakin (don't blame you there) and want a more mild-mannered milky chocolate, now's the time to hop on over to any of these milk chocolate ice cream recipes. They're great too, and they deliver a sustained cocoa flavor that complements but doesn't overwhelm the dairy and other ingredients.

The trick to making a decent milk chocolate ice cream is simple: a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder. You don't even need particularly high quality cocoa. Your end product is marginally better if you do use it, but my tasters have had no trouble polishing off a couple quarts of milk chocolate ice cream made with Hershey's. Mild cocoa brings the perfect "chocolaty" flavor to ice cream in a friendly way, which if you're making Rocky Road is probably exactly what you're looking for.

Dark-as-my-soul chocolate ice cream, though, needs a lot more. Everyone has their own definition of the best, but mine involves more than just big chocolate flavor and rich, rounded cocoa qualities; it also includes the fruity-lemony bitterness, tartness, and astringency of a quality dark chocolate bar. As for texture, I want it to feel more like a chilled truffle than a frozen dessert—chocolate ice cream that verges on ganache.

Getting that kind of ice cream calls for more than cocoa powder alone, which is why pretty much every dark chocolate ice cream recipe also calls for proper dark chocolate to deliver those tart, fruity flavors. Which brings us to...

Don't Skimp on the Chocolate

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If there's one rule to great dark chocolate ice cream, it's using quality ingredients. Now is not the time to cheap out.

Okay, this is one of the most boring food writing platitudes out there. And often that platitude is bunk. We've seen again and again that springing for supposedly higher quality ingredients like dairy, eggs, and vanilla don't necessarily make for higher quality results.

But in chocolate ice cream, the platitude holds true. Sure, once melted into an ice cream base, the subtle differences between, say, Madagascar and Venezuela beans pretty much disappear. But the bittersweet and fruity flavors remain, along with an overall sense of balance. So don't break out the $12 two-and-a-half ounce tasting bars for this recipe, but do use a high quality dark chocolate in the range of 70% with a strong fruity aroma.* Valrhona, Madecasse, Cacao Barry, and Callebaut all work nicely.

* Why not go all-out and use a 100% dark chocolate with no sugar whatsoever? You certainly can, but I've gone with a percentage that's easier to find in most grocery stores. Many supermarkets sell top-notch 70% chocolate but far fewer also stock similar quality 100%. If you do want to use 100% chocolate, you'll need to add a few more tablespoons of sugar to compensate.

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The same goes for cocoa powder. You can use either natural or Dutch process—the former will taste more tart, the latter more "chocolaty"—but use a good one like Valrhona or Pernigotti.

Above is a comparison of Valrhona and Hershey's cocoa. Granted, the Hershey's is in part lighter because it's a more acidic "natural" cocoa, but the Valrhona tastes and smells a whole lot more like ground up chocolate than the Hershey's stuff, and in my testing I've found that the difference carries through to the final product. The Valrhona powder also yields a darker colored ice cream, and like it or not, color impacts taste; I've found tasters judge a darker-looking chocolate ice cream as more dark and rich before they even try a scoop.*

* I know at least one of you is going to ask why I'm not using black cocoa powder, the dark-as-night ingredient that gives Oreo cookies their signature color and bitterness. Black cocoa powder is fun stuff, but it's also mighty hard for the average person to find. On top of that, its flavor is more limited than conventional cocoa powder—all dark and bitter, less fruity and complex. So you'd have to cut it with conventional cocoa powder anyway to get the rounded chocolate bar experience we're going for here.

The Secret Weapon: Cocoa Nibs

Follow the advice above and you'll have...pretty much every highly regarded dark chocolate ice cream recipe out there. Sure, cookbooks and magazines call for varying amounts of dark chocolate and cocoa powder, but that's about as far as the differences go.

For workaday chocolate ice cream, that's a fine place to stop, but if you're looking for the full dark chocolate experience, there's one more ingredient to keep in mind: cocoa nibs, the cracked cores of the cacao pod before they're ground up to make chocolate. Cocoa nibs are concentrated kernels of bitter, fruity, tart, and roasted flavor without a trace of sweetness, perfect for amping up our darkest of dark chocolate ice creams. And rather than add them in as crunchy mix-ins, I prefer to infuse them directly into the base.

Bring your dairy to a simmer, then stir in a couple ounces of nibs and let them steep for a few hours. Strain them out, then proceed to make ice cream as normal. In a blind tasting, ice cream made with cocoa nibs had a subtle but noticeable extra complexity, fruitiness, and nuttiness. "I can't say exactly why," one taster said, "but this tastes more like real chocolate to me."

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To a hardcore chocolate fan, that's music to my ears. Is it worth the expense of quality chocolate, cocoa, and nibs, and the extra time spent steeping them into dairy and making ice cream from scratch?

Well, you don't become a dark chocolate lord of the Sith without breaking a few younglings along the way.