Thanks to my background in the restaurant world, I rarely think of individual recipes as full-fledged desserts of their own, but rather as building blocks to form a more complex whole. While most home cooks don't need to assemble any sort of formally composed dessert, borrowing from that mindset can open up many avenues for creative expression.
This kind of thinking also provides a low-risk means of exploring new flavor combinations without requiring the sort of technical know-how needed to reformulate a recipe from the ground up. For example, combining different flavors and layers of cake with frostings beyond what's listed in a recipe or pairing various types of fruit and creamy fillings with pastry to make custom tarts.
While summer is still in full swing, I'd like to apply that concept to ice cream—whether swirled with fruit, nuts and chocolate, or caramel. Heck, even ice cream swirled with more ice cream is an option. Depending on the flavor of the ice cream itself, that makes the possible combinations nearly endless, ranging from zany and complex to an elegant simplicity, or all of the above, as per my raspberry ripple goat's milk fior di latte gelato.
Swirled ice creams are a showcase of two finished products: freshly churned ice cream and a contrasting ripple. For this reason, a swirl is always made by folding these two elements together by hand. Adding a swirl to the ice cream machine would churn it into the base, causing the two to homogenize. Not only would the swirl’s distinctive appearance be lost, its intensity will likewise be diluted by the ice cream base. And, in turn, its fat and sugar content will affect the ice cream’s behavior.
All that being said, the real trick to a great ice cream swirl comes down to choosing a great combination of flavors.
I've covered the details and step-by-step process for how to make a fresh-fruit swirl for ice cream in the past, but it's worth repeating here that most any juicy fruit can be transformed into a thick and jammy ribbon for ice cream (think berries and stone fruit, not bananas).
Vanilla ice cream with a blackberry swirl may not seem too fancy, but what if the base was peanut butter ice cream instead?
As written, our easy caramel sauce is perfect for swirling into ice cream; it requires no modifications at all, and produces lush ribbons once frozen. Depending on personal preference, you can customize the caramel’s flavor profile by cooking it to a lighter or darker stage, which I recommend judging by aroma and sight over a specific temperature, as caramel cooks too fast for even an instant-read thermometer (plus, the syrup layer is generally too thin to provide enough depth for the probe, while tiling the pot to one side will immediately halt cooking and skew the results).
Besides, with caramel what you see (and smell) is what you get. Keep its flavor delicate and light by halting the cooking process early in the game, just as the first notes of caramel color and aroma emerge. This produces a sweeter style of caramel that pairs best with bitter ice cream flavors, like coffee or dark chocolate, or ice cream with strong levels of heat or spice, like my gingerbread ice cream.
Or cook the caramel until its color darkens to a foxy amber, with a stronger aroma to match; a robust style with bitter notes that works best to offset sweeter ice creams, such as those with a dairy-forward profile such as ice milk and fior di latte gelato, as well as our no-churn mascarpone ice cream.
Bittersweet caramels are also a good match for sweet chocolate ice creams (white or milk), or those based on produce, like sweet corn, pumpkin, pineapple, or banana (what I'm using here).
Dark or light, the degree of caramelization plays no role in the caramel's consistency, so its texture will remain the same once frozen in the ice cream: gooey and thick. Don't churn it into the ice cream directly; rather layer the two together in a frozen dish. I like the tidiness of incorporating the caramel into the ice cream with a disposable pastry bag, but feel free to just drizzle it off the back of a spoon.
Those big, discrete swirls can be left as-is, or you can fold the ice cream a time or two for an irregular effect.
Like caramel, homemade cajeta will also make a beautiful swirl for ice cream (bonus points if it's swirled through cajeta ice cream). Likewise, homemade dulce de leche works quite well; there's a made-from-scratch recipe in my cookbook, or try a hands-free approach with canned milk.
Nutty Chocolate Swirl
I'm happy to report that homemade Nutella (whether creamy or crunchy) makes a brilliant swirl for ice cream, developing a dense, chewy, and fudgy consistency once frozen (along with a delicately brittle crispiness, should you opt for the crunchy variation).
Anyone who loves Nutella will already have a thousand flavor pairings in mind already, but its nutty and bittersweet profile can push hazelnut ice cream right over the top.
As the homemade Nutella will be too thick to drizzle with a spoon at room temperature, I do recommend a pastry bag to distribute the swirl. Leave it be, or stir it in for a more chip-like distribution.
On its own, homemade Nutella may not sound interesting enough to constitute an entire category of swirl, but the technique works equally well with any type of nut, from peanuts and cashews to walnuts and pecans, or any meaty, crunchy, nut-like seed. And, of course, the finished product can be flavored to taste with extracts and spices. That opens the door to exponentially more possibilities, like pumpkin ice cream with a cinnamon-chocolate–pumpkin-seed swirl, or roasted cherry ice cream with a chocolate-almond swirl, or black sesame ice cream with a chocolate-sesame swirl.
If chocolate isn't your jam, the sugar content in homemade pistachio paste yields a nice, chewy texture when frozen with ice cream, making it a good springboard for a soft and nutty swirl, without a chocolate kick.
Ice Cream Swirl
Last but not least: swirling ice cream itself. This is easiest to pull off with no-churn ice cream, as side by side batches are easier to prepare. With our no-churn chocolate, vanilla, and mascarpone ice creams you'll have a lot of base recipes to start with, in addition to the many flavors that are possible with our no-churn ice cream based on freeze-dried fruit.
That said, traditionally churned ice creams can still be swirled together, so long as both have been softened to about 30°F in the fridge prior to layering into a cold container, such as a 2-quart baking dish that's been stashed in the freezer. At that temperature, the ice creams will be soft enough to scoop and layer together, but not so warm that they'll experience substantial melt.
Alternatively, a batch of softened ice cream can be swirled with a batch of freshly churned ice cream. Or, those with a compressor-style ice cream machine can swirl two consecutively churned ice creams with relative ease. Here, I've simply layered a batch of no-churn chocolate and no-churn mascarpone into a dish prior to freezing.
Swirled ice creams can also be further swirled with a swirl, for those brave enough to channel their inner Ben & Jerry to tackle so many recipes in tandem.
Whatever path of implementation you choose, let your cravings be your guide, and concentrate on flavor pairings and ingredients, rather than the technicalities of recipe development. Rest assured, you don't need to be a food scientist to crack the code to the ice cream ripple of your dreams.