If vegan dessert has an Everest, it's ice cream. None of this "instant soft serve, just freeze a banana and purée it" nonsense popularized by so many Pinterest-happy blogs. Nor icy mixes made with soy milk and a tiny squeeze of agave. I mean real ice cream, plush, rich, and free of ice crystals, the kind you want to eat by the pint with a long sundae spoon. The kind that a dairy-lover should lap up with just as much abandon as the strictest vegan.
Packaged ice cream manufacturers are getting better at the vegan stuff, and some restaurants are making mighty tasty scoops with $4,000 Paco Jets and ingredients you likely won't find at your grocery store. But for ice cream fanatics, vegan or not, that's not good enough. We need to make it at home, our way, with our own flavors and mix-ins.
Though my diet is pretty far from animal-free, I've been vegan-curious for a good chunk of my life, and in the past couple years have been obsessed with finding vegan ice cream that's just as good as its dairy alternative. Last year I reached the vegan ice cream summit: A master recipe that scoops, melts, and feels the way ice cream should, and doesn't require any stabilizers or specialty ingredients. And it was pretty damn good.
Now I have some new flavors to show just how versatile that base really is.
My vegan ice cream base is equal parts coconut milk and coconut cream, an ersatz half-and-half not unlike what I use in my dairy-based recipes. Take note that coconut cream, essentially a concentrated coconut milk, is not the same as "cream of coconut," which is full of sugars and additives, or "creamed coconut," which is pulverized coconut meat. Its extra richness is worth the hunt to find it at Chinese and Southeast Asian groceries or online; using it is the difference between making fatty-delicious vegan ice cream and settling for coconut milk sorbet. Savoy and Arroy-D make good versions of coconut cream.
To that mixture you add a fair amount of sugar and a touch of corn syrup for extra plush richness. (And before you ask, yes, you need the corn syrup, and no, other sweeteners like agave or maple syrup won't work the same way; corn syrup's particular molecular composition and viscosity is part of what makes this ice cream luscious and scoopable. But I can keep your secret if you don't want to tell.) Heat the base until it simmers, then blend it to fully emulsify the coconut fats that might otherwise separate and turn grainy in the churn. Once it's chilled, you're ready to add salt and flavorings, then make ice cream.
It will certainly taste like coconut, not cow milk, but I consider this a feature rather than a bug. I'd rather have a rich, dense scoop of coconut-accented ice cream than a neutral-tasting but icy one, and you'd be surprised at just how many flavors are coconut-compatible.
Last year I stuck to basic vanilla and chocolate flavors. Here are three more recipes that show just how versatile this base can be.
Mint Chip Ice Cream
Real-deal mint chip, the off-white kind stained by fistfuls of actual mint leaves and peppered with quality chocolate, is one of the best reasons to make ice cream at home—it's not practical for ice cream parlors to make it the old fashioned way, which is why so many rely on mint extracts for that telltale toothpastey flavor.
It's amazing how well mint and coconut go together; mint teases out all the coconut's richness while the coconut makes the mint all the more grassy and bright. Bring your coconut milk mixture to a simmer, take it off the heat, add more mint leaves than you think wise, and cover it to steep for two hours. Chopped dark chocolate—easier than ever to find 100% vegan—sprinkled in during the last few minutes of churning completes the package.
Salty Peanut Butter Ice Cream
Peanut butter adds a velvety smoothness like nothing else to homemade ice cream, and while this recipe is rife for spiffing up with chocolate chunks, I can't help but keep it pure and creamy. A "no-stir" variety like the 100% vegan version from Peanut Butter and Company yields best results in this recipe. I like to kick up the salt so its mineral bite cuts right through the sweetness and double nutty dose of peanut and coconut.
Coconut Rum Ice Cream
Yes yes yes, "you put the lime in the coconut," I know. Hey, as long as we're going with a coconut motif we might as well make the most of the lovely trio of coconut, lime, and dark rum. Zest a couples limes into your warm coconut base and add a shot of rum for some deep molasses funk. Just be careful not to overdo it on the rum; too much and your ice cream won't freeze properly. And let the ice cream harden overnight in the freezer; it softens quickly out on the counter.
And this is just the beginning. Try infusing white sesame seeds and orange zest, or green chilies and cilantro, or roasted oolong tea. Stir in chunks of candy or ribbons of jam. As long as you keep the ice cream base's ingredient proportions at a relative constant it's a blank slate for whatever you want to add. Go forth, ice cream lovers. The summit is yours for the taking.