Anyone who's traveled abroad can relate to the experience of returning home and struggling to re-create a favorite dish. Even with the simplest ingredients, manufacturing practices may vary from country to country and change everything. (Witness the difference between American and Belgian brown sugar, one made from molasses and the other with caramel.)
Such was the case in my quest to reproduce the black sesame ice cream I fell in love with during my time in Japan. It was always jet-black and outrageously nutty, with a pleasant bitterness like dark chocolate and an almost savory edge.
I knew from snooping around in Japanese kitchens that the key was commercial black sesame paste, rather than black sesame seeds. Though seeds alone can make a tasty ice cream, those ground at home can't provide the intensity of color, flavor, or richness that I longed for. It's like comparing a jar of Skippy to peanut butter made in a food processor—similar but undeniably a different beast.
Yet the black sesame paste I found in supermarkets invariably made my ice cream bitter, bland, and a sickly shade of gray-green. I realized immediately that there was something unique about Japanese black sesame paste, so I ordered the genuine article online.
As it turns out, black tahini is made from hulled, raw black sesame seeds, giving it a bitter astringency and only a mild nuttiness. Japanese-style black sesame paste, on the other hand, is made from toasted black sesame seeds, with their hulls intact. Those two factors give Japanese black sesame paste its super-nutty flavor and deep black color, with just a hint of bitterness—something that's lovely and mellow, rather than sharp.
That level of intensity is able to survive dilution with milk and cream, meaning that prized flavor and color are evident in every bite.
In Japan, black sesame desserts are often served with kuromitsu, which means "black honey," though it's really a type of light molasses. It has a maltiness and mild acidity that underscore toasted black sesame in a delightful way. To cash in on that classic pairing without having to source yet another specialty ingredient, I reached for turbinado sugar instead: Its all-natural molasses flavor is perfect for the job, though Demerara or light brown sugar would work nicely, too.
With those ingredients in place, I make the ice cream base in much the same way as the custard for my Oreo ice cream, with the eggs, sugar, milk, and cream all mixed together from the start and gently warmed over medium-low heat.
Once the mixture is warm to the touch, I bump the heat up to medium and keep cooking and stirring until it's steaming-hot, but well short of bubbling. If you need to be certain the eggs are cooked through, aim for about 155°F (68°C), but hitting that specific temperature isn't important to the success of the recipe.
Off heat, add the black sesame paste, whisk until smooth, and strain to remove any bits of chalazae or chunky sesame pieces—the fineness of the paste will vary from brand to brand. On that note, if you do find yourself with a coarser black sesame paste, feel free to hit the ice cream base with an immersion blender to smooth it out, though I found this step unnecessary with ultra-smooth brands like Kuki.
Refrigerate the ice cream base until it's no warmer than 40°F (4°C) before churning. (This can take about four hours, so use an ice bath to speed this process along if you're in a hurry.) As with any ice cream churned in a canister, it's vital that that canister be as cold as possible, so adjust the dial if your freezer is usually warmer than 1°F (-18°C); otherwise, your ice creams won't be as creamy as they should. I love my Cuisinart ice cream machine, but any stand-alone machine should produce equally excellent results.
When the ice cream is thick and light, you can enjoy it like Japanese soft-serve, or transfer it to a chilled ice cream container, empty yogurt tub, or loaf pan. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly against the surface of the ice cream (to prevent freezer burn), then cover with a lid or sheet of foil and freeze until it's firm enough to scoop.
I'm crazy about black sesame ice cream by itself—it's bittersweet, rich, and complex enough to stand all on its own.
If you'd like to dress it up, though, I've found that black sesame ice cream is amazing with a spoonful of raspberry purée.
It's something of a peanut butter and jelly vibe, with the toasted black sesame perfectly complemented by the bright acidity of fresh fruit.
And if you have any extra black sesame when you're done, be sure to try Daniel's roasted carrots with black sesame dressing—it's a recipe he invented to polish off all my leftover black sesame paste.