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While there's something to be said for a vanilla ice cream shot through with boozy cherries and chunks of chocolate, when I'm craving cherry ice cream what I want is a technicolor scoop of pure cherry intensity, almost like a sherbet—an assertive fruit flavor tempered with a splash of cream and no yolks in sight.
Having worked out similar recipes for the strawberry and blackberry ice creams in my cookbook, I had a pretty decent idea of where to start. But I knew that cherries, with their pesky pits, would require a slightly different approach.
At the same time, I saw those very pits as an opportunity to build flavor, a trick I've used before to make cherry pit whipped cream. With a bit of experimentation, I found a way to do just that in my ice cream, as well.
This recipe will work with whatever cherries you have, but bear in mind their natural flavor, acidity, and pigment will determine everything about the ice cream's flavor and color, so it's important to use truly outstanding fruit. When I tried it with tart red cherries at home, my ice cream tasted as fresh and bright as its magenta color, while the sweet black cherries I used at Serious Eats gave it a darker, jammier quality.
Both were great, but vastly different from each other. Whatever type of cherry you choose, the trick is to roast the cherries whole. You might say it's the "bone-in" method for stone fruit, allowing their flavorful pits to impart an even deeper cherry essence to the ice cream. From there, I pit the cherries and continue cooking them on the stovetop to concentrate their juices, while the pits are steeped in cream to extract even more of that roasted flavor. The last step is to combine the cherry pit infusion and cherry reduction, producing a brilliantly colored ice cream base with a truly intense flavor.
It's not the fastest or simplest recipe in the world, but none of the steps are hard. I'll explain each one here, starting with the roasting process.
I start by sprinkling the cherries with sugar and roasting them in the same deep skillet I'll later use to cook down their juices.
If you don't have a pot that can do double duty in the oven and on the stove, it's fine to roast them in a baking dish. Or, for those who'd rather keep their oven off, the cherries can be roasted on the grill in a cast iron skillet, so long as it's well seasoned and properly maintained. A good-condition cast iron pan is a great way to take this project outdoors, where you can roast the cherries on a grill without scorching them along the bottom. They can also be slow-roasted in the dying heat of a grill after you've finished up with dinner.
This recipe hasn't given me any trouble in the well worn, hand-me-down cast iron pans I inherited from my grandmothers, but a neglected pan (i.e., one that's minimally seasoned) can react with the acid in the fruit, imparting a strong metallic twang to the cherries. If you have any doubts, play it safe with stainless steel (if it's heavy enough and fully clad, a stainless steel skillet can go on the grill, too).
However you go about it, the idea is to roast the cherries until wilted, tender, and juicy.
That takes about 40 minutes at 450°F, though the exact timeline can vary considerably depending on the surface area of the skillet and your roasting method. What's important to remember is that the longer the cherries are roasted, the more they'll dry out and the less they'll need to be cooked down on the stovetop later on. But at the same time, the longer they're roasted, the more likely their juices are to caramelize, which is why I like to stop at around the 40-minute mark, while the cherry flavor is still bright and fresh. At that point, they'll also be soft enough to pit by hand with a gentle squeeze once they've cooled.
Working over the skillet to collect the juices, I transfer the pits to a small pot and reserve the fruit in a tall, narrow container (more on that in a bit).
This ice cream is Philadelphia-style, which means no eggs. That gives it a pure and simple flavor, nothing more than sweetened cherries and cream—plus smoke if you opt to roast them on the grill. There's no need for milk because the cherry juice itself contributes plenty of water, while the cream is a more than adequate source of lactose. Besides, the milk would only curdle in the high-acid mix.
To make the most of these simple ingredients, I infuse the cream with the reserved cherry pits. They're awash in lingering cherry juice and bits of fruit, plus they can impart a subtle almondy flavor to the cream. I combine the two and place them over medium heat until the cream is steaming hot but not yet bubbling. Then I cover the pot to prevent evaporation, turn off the heat, and steep them until needed, up to four hours.
Meanwhile, I give the roasted cherries a rough chop with an immersion blender—just enough to break up the larger pieces—and return them to the pan of juices. The next step is to cook them over medium heat, scraping with a flexible, heat resistant spatula to prevent splattering, until about half the juices have evaporated and the mixture looks jammy and thick, but not dry.
This is the trickiest part of the recipe, because it's not easy to judge doneness while it's still on the stove. For that, you'll need a scale. Strain the mixture into a large bowl and press on the cherries to release as much of their juice as possible—when the mixture is ready there will be about 15 ounces of cherry "jam" caught in the sieve and 20 ounces of cherry juice reduction.
If you have significantly more liquid, that means it hasn't reduced enough. That excess water in the juices will make the ice cream icy and mild; you'll need to return the juices to the stovetop and reduce them further. If you have significantly less liquid, the lack of water means the proportion of sugar will be high enough to make the ice cream gummy and excessively sweet; in that case, you'll want to top it off with more water to make up for the loss.
Next, set aside the jammy cherry pulp (it's way too tasty to be thrown away) and strain the cherry pit-infused cream into the bowl, discarding the pits, and whisk to combine.
To speed the cooling process, I like to chill the base in an ice bath, but it's fine if you'd prefer to simply toss it in the fridge. Once the mixture is cool, try a spoonful and doctor it with a little salt and/or lemon juice to taste (don't do this while the base is warm, as the temperature will throw off your perception of the flavors).
Continue refrigerating until the base is cold, about 39°F (4°C), and then churn it in an ice cream maker (we use a Cuisinart ICE-21 in our test kitchen).
Just as the performance of an oven can determine the quality of baked goods, so too can your machine make or break an ice cream. If you experience consistent problems with your homemade ice creams, like iciness, un-emulsified butterfat, or a gummy consistency, it's worth evaluating whether or not the machine might be playing a role. Regardless of what machine you have at home, do make sure the canister is properly frozen. Aside from giving it as much time as the manufacturer suggests, use a thermometer to make sure your freezer actually gets down to 0°F. With a well-frozen canister, even a less-than-perfect machine can churn up a pretty good ice cream!
If you don't have a fancy dedicated ice cream tub, transfer the ice cream to a empty yogurt carton or a non-reactive loaf pan and freeze until it's firm and cold. Again, if your freezer doesn't get all the way down to 0°F, you'll definitely see some structural problems and have something a little closer to soft serve—a little tricky to scoop, but still wonderfully delicious.
For me, there's no gilding the lily. The roasted cherry flavor is so intense and pure that I don't want to futz with any sort of sauce or topping—it's just perfect all on its own. That said, it would be killer over a warm slice of peach galette or as a brilliant contrast to a classic blueberry pie.
And all that cherry pulp you strained out? Don't worry, your awesome summer stone fruit won't go to waste.
Since the leftover cherry pulp is low moisture/high acid, it will keep for several weeks in the fridge. Enjoy it like a simple jam, or as a topping for a batch of Whipped Greek Yogurt. The lightly sweetened cherries also make a great substitute for the honey-macerated cherries in Daniel's Sweet and Sour Cherries With Mint and Almonds, or you can try them spooned over warm ricotta on toasted multi-grained bread for a summery breakfast treat.
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