Saturday, 9 April 2011

Attempting the Impossible: Or, the Recreation of a Sublime Recipe


It is a longing that many of us have experienced after indulging in a sublime recipe at a restaurant, or perhaps at a friend's home. It might be an ubiquitous experience among culinary adventurous types to taste an unusual and completely surprising dish somewhere (all the better if it is far from home) and to attempt to recreate its singularity. Never mind that the task is sure to fall well short of expectations. It is something that must be tried, like the breaking of Olympic records or land speed records. Most often one's creation is but a pale reflection of the original inspirational object. If it is a home-made recipe one can always attempt to obtain it, an effort that may or may not be met with success. A few words alluding to a "secret family recipe" is usually enough to send even the boldest inquisitor slinking away. For restaurant offerings, even if one were to somehow obtain a recipe, given the wild discrepancy between the humble foodie and the knowledge and technical resources of the restaurant kitchen, it is unlikely that the results will measure up.

The Idle Historian's own sublime culinary artifact of recent years is something rather unexpected (but then again, such things are): basil ice cream. This divinely-inspired mixture was first sampled in the sort of circumstances that make for the classic idealized recipe. It was the height of British summer (not always a contradiction in terms), an early evening dinner with a close friend at a favourite bistro in South Kensington across the road from the Brompton Oratory -- followed by a quick sprint up Exhibition Road, as the sun filtered through the trees, to the Royal Albert Hall for an evening at the Proms. The quick sprint was no doubt facilitated by the excellence of the meal on the whole, the temptation to linger and quite forget the clock, and... the basil ice cream. The basil ice cream was served as an accompaniment to the rest of the pudding, which remains unremembered. The basil ice cream does not -- it was perfection on a spoon.

On the face of it, it seems a bizarre mixture. But on second reflection, the sweetness of the finest basil is perfectly suited to sweet dishes. A quick internet search reveals that basil ice cream may in fact be a more broadly-known foodie "thing" -- concocted by preeminent chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, among others.One recipe is to be found at Epicurious, and another here. I have, as yet, attempted neither, and furthermore do not possess an ice cream making machine. My own "recipe" was rather more primitive:

First, (very) lightly heat cream and a quantity of sugar that seems reasonable, remove from the heat, and then stir in whole stalks (one handful or so) of sweet basil, washed. Stir it continuously for some time, removing the basil just as it begins to brown. (My recipes are not terribly precise, as is apparent here.) It did not smell promising, but tasted quite alright prior to freezing. The frozen result was, unfortunately, quite hard, though the taste (once one dislodged pieces large enough to sample) was pleasing. It did the trick for sampling with fruit -- combining particularly well with canned peaches. No rival for the original, of course, though no doubt the use of an ice cream maker would go some way towards the desired result.

It is my own personal sublime recipe. No doubt you will be able to recall one or two from fond memory. Take your best shot at recreating it -- think not of "success," for that may well be elusive, but of the pleasure of attempting.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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