Sugar's latest ally in the world of high-end dessert isn't salt or umami. It's smoke.
Look around some recent pastry menus and you'll find all manner of smoked sweets: marshmallows and custards and fruit tinged with the inescapable flavor of wood fire. Smoke adds a dimension of flavor all its own, something sweet and rich but also pungent. You always know when you're tasting smoke. And when used with care, smoke adds incredible depth to dessert without making it taste burnt, acrid, or overly meaty.
This isn't new ground. Spirits like mezcal and Scotch enhance the range and depth of their sweetness with a hit of smoke, as do some jars of maple syrup and molasses. In Indonesia and Malaysia, a smoky syrup called gula melaka—made from coconut palm sugar—crowns all kinds of shaved icy treats. Indian black cardamom and Chinese lapsang souchong tea, which are both dried over smoky fires, find their way into drinks and desserts as a kind of spice. Look around and you'll find desserts made with smoked salt, hit with precision smoke guns, and dosed with liquid smoke, made from vapor that's passed through a smoky chamber and then condensed back into liquid.
But none of them quite replicate the slow-burning richness of fresh wood smoke, which is surprisingly easy to produce no matter what kind of kitchen setup you have. (The intentional way, not the accidentally setting your kitchen on fire way, though that's easy too.)
What to smoke first? Consider ice cream. Why? Because of the hundreds of ice creams I've tried over the years, smoked ice cream is on my short list of favorites. The trick is to use smoke carefully—as an accent ingredient—and to not over-do it.
Pastry chef Tracy Obolsky of New York's North End Grill is an ice cream fanatic with a particular talent for smoked desserts. I called her to ask how she makes smoked ice cream at her restaurant.
The Skinny on Smoking
All smoking takes is a fire, some wood, and two pans: a smaller one to hold cream and a larger one filled with ice and water to make an ice bath.
"You smoke cream on its own, then mix that smoked cream with regular cream to control the final smokiness," Obolsky explains. "I might like an all-smoked-cream ice cream, but most of my customers probably won't." The particular flavor and intensity of smoke also varies from batch to batch, so diluting down your smoked cream lets you compensate for just how much smoke went into it.
Once you dilute your cream to an acceptably smoky level, you're ready to use it in any ice cream recipe you want—just mix it with milk, egg yolks, sugar, and flavorings and make your custard. Why not save time and smoke the whole ice cream base? "Because," Obolsky points out, "you don't want to dull any other flavors." A smoky peach ice cream may taste great, but peach purée sitting in a smoker for an hour or two likely won't taste as fresh and vibrant.
For a more detailed view of the process, here's how it's done.
Step by Step
First off, get some kind of a smoking rig. The model in these photos is a simple vertical backyard smoker with two doors: one that gives you access to the charcoal and wood, and the other that opens up to racks for food.
But you can make a smoker out of anything. Grills work great. Wrap a wok in aluminum foil and you can smoke wood chips right on the bottom. Or do like our pals Ideas in Food and set up a smoking chamber right on your stovetop. All you need is a way to get wood chips smoking and to suspend your pans of cream and ice water above the smoke.
Next, get your wood. To help, here's a great guide on how to smoke food using wood which should get you started. Since smoking cream doesn't take much time, different wood varieties like applewood or oak won't make much flavor difference. Wood chips are perfect; just let them soak in water for half an hour before putting them on the fire.
Now, if you're using coals to help keep the wood smoking, it's time to light your charcoal (some smoking rigs don't require charcoal to make the wood smoke, so follow the manufacturer's instructions or use your best judgment if you're jury-rigging it *). You don't want much as you're looking to create smoke, not heat—an ambient temperature of 150°F or lower is plenty hot for our purposes. A couple handfuls of charcoal, enough to fill a charcoal chimney a third to halfway, is all you need. Once your coals are hot, add them to the smoker and drop a single handful of wood chips on top.
Just remember that charcoal, wood coals, and other fuels produce carbon monoxide when they burn, so use caution and work outdoors or in a very well ventilated area.
While your coals are heating up, get your rig ready. "You want a shallow baking pan for smoking the cream," Obolsky says, "so the smoke can penetrate faster." Pick a pan that will nest inside the larger one, which you'll need for an ice bath to keep the cream at a cool food-safe temperature. Smoking cream falls under the category of "cold smoking," which refers to flavoring food with smoke without actually cooking it.
I like disposable aluminum pans for convenience and flexibility. To keep sloshing cream and water at bay you can fold up the pan's lip, and if the pan isn't quite the right size for your smoker, its shape adjusts easily.
Get your larger pan in the smoker first and fill it with ice and water. Then add in the empty smaller pan and pour in the cream. And that's it—now you're smoking.
How long should you smoke your cream? Obolsky goes for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, but I found about 1 1/2 was plenty to give a quart of cream a pronounced smoky flavor. Your mileage may vary depending on your smoker, heat source, amount of fuel, and the number of times you fiddle with the smoker, but that's okay. Remember—you're going to dilute this cream later on. If your cream turns out too smoky, add more plain cream; if it's only subtly smoky, add less.
While your cream smokes you'll need to keep track of a few things. Wood chips will burn out about every 20 minutes depending on the fire, so you'll need to replenish them from time to time to keep the smoke going. Every time you do, take the cream's temperature with an instant-read thermometer. If the cream starts to heat up, remove it from the smoker and replenish the ice bath with fresh cold water and ice. It also helps to give the cream an occasional stir, lest a skin form on top that could prevent smoke from penetrating underneath.
How to Use Your Smoked Cream
Once the cream is smoky to your taste, it won't look much different than when you started. Evaporation and that slow heat may turn it a little thicker, but you can use the cream just like you always would. (Bonus idea: use it to churn your own smoked butter.)
But let's stick to ice cream for now. I found my smoked cream tasted best when diluted by 50%; that is, for a standard ice cream recipe with two cups of cream and one cup of milk, I used one cup of smoked cream, one cup of plain cream, and one cup of milk. But I encourage you to find a balance that's in line with your tastes.
What ice cream should you make with it? The possibilities are nearly endless. Ripe fruit like peaches, plums, and bananas are all prime smoke fodder. So is chocolate, caramel, and most nut flavors. Go crazy with herbs and spices: cinnamon, ginger, and coriander. Just think of smoke as an ingredient like honey, alcohol, or spice—one more way to layer flavor into your ice cream.
One possibility is a smoky vanilla ice cream made with muscavado sugar, a type of brown sugar with a deep caramel, almost scorched flavor. Smoke acts as an incredible flavor enhancer for the muscavado and vanilla adds sweet floral lift for balance. Serve this ice cream with a berry cobbler or a slice of gingerbread.
But my favorite use for smoked cream, and one of my favorite ice creams ever, is this smoked honey mint chip. Few things taste better than cream steeped with a fat bundle of mint leaves, and mint goes surprisingly well with a hint of smoke. Honey adds a deep, almost juicy sweetness, and a bridge between the fresh mint and rich smoke. This isn't a mint chip for every occasion, but to my mind that just means we need more occasions for smoked honey mint chip.
Consider these recipes as a starting point for your long, happy relationship with smoked dessert. And if you've had success smoking ice creams of your own, share your stories in the comments.