Italy is never far from my heart and thoughts; if there’s anyone down to celebrate an Italian holiday, it’s THIS GIRL. As I start up another school year this week, I am wistfully reminded that Italians are celebrating the festival of Ferragosto, established in Roman times (Feriae Augusti– “Festivals of the Emperor Augustus” in Latin) and associated with the Catholic Assumption Day, which marks the beginning of vacation season– Italians do vacation right by getting out of the hot, sticky cities and heading to the beach in the month of August. Renato Poliafito of BAKED spent part of his childhood in Sicily, during which he consumed many granita-stuffed brioche buns; this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe for Brioche Ice Cream Sandwiches from Baked Occasions is an homage to Ferragosto and Sicily’s traditional summer treats.
I spent 3 dreamy weeks on my honeymoon in Italy last summer, a few days of which were in Taormina, located on the eastern coast of Sicily. It was my first time on the island, and I was immediately taken in by its rugged, beguiling beauty and the staggering abundance of naturally occurring foodstuffs. Among Sicily’s most prominent culinary products are lemons and pistachios, which I wrote a bit about here, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, I have yet to organize my notes and finish my blog series about Italy, but I feel compelled to include this…
Oh, and this…….
Needless to say, Italy gets into your blood, and I am certainly not immune to its wily spell. So I guess these here ice cream sandwiches will have to do for the moment. (I have to confess that I saw nothing like this whatsoever when I was there, but I probably just need more time to, um, research. 😉 ) The sandos of Renato’s childhood were filled with almond granita; these are filled with ice cream, either homemade or store-bought. The recommended homemade recipe is Brown Sugar Praline Ice Cream (from the book’s incredible ice cream cake called The New Orleans for Mardi Gras). This is not exactly Italian, but it sounded positively amazing, so I decided not to nitpick such inconvenient details…
I don’t make ice cream at home nearly often enough, and I always forget how truly easy it is. This one is a bit more time-consuming than your average recipe because it requires making sweet and salty caramel and pecan pralines, but these can be made up to a few days in advance. I’ve made this caramel several times, and I’m always afraid of burning it because it goes from dark amber to black in the blink of an eye. It has a very bittersweet taste when you make it super dark (a little too bitter on its own for me), but it will offset the sweetness of the pralines *perfectly* once it’s mixed into the ice cream.
The pecan pralines were completely new to me– I didn’t really know what they were supposed to look like, though I was picturing some sort of nut clusters. The mixture reminded me a lot of the Chocolate Velvet Walnut Fudge from Baked Elements, which I struggled with due to my mixing method, so I made sure to combine the ingredients in the pot before turning on the heat. The pralines are made from a bubbling brew of granulated and dark brown sugars, heavy cream, corn syrup, and salt, to which are added chopped pecans, butter, and vanilla extract.
This gooey mixture then gets scooped onto a cookie sheet– the result looks something like brown sugar puddles studded with pecan pieces. When the pralines cooled and hardened, they were similar to penuche (brown sugar fudge) “cookies”. I was worried that they would not firm up enough to chop, but they were fine after a few hours.
You’ll want to scoop the mixture quickly, as it will start to set within minutes. My first sheet pan looked “clearer”, while the second pan looked cloudier and the last ones that I scooped from the bottom of the pan looked mottled, probably a result of crystallized sugar. No matter– they were perfectly fine for chopping up and adding to ice cream.
After the caramel and pralines were made, the rest of the process was quite easy. You’ll make a cooked ice cream base of heavy cream, milk, dark brown sugar, butter, and salt, half of which will get slowly added to whisked egg yolks (in order to temper them), and then it all gets added back into the pan to cook until thick enough to coat a wooden spoon. Finally, you’ll strain the custard through a sieve and add vanilla extract– I chose to use vanilla bean paste because I like the black flecks. I thought I overcooked it at this stage because there were some little eggy bits, but everything extraneous was strained out, and the finished mixture was smooth. The custard needs to cool (cover the surface directly with plastic to avoid a skin forming), then chill in the fridge for 4 hours.
Then comes the fun part– churning the ice cream! Pour the mixture into an ice cream machine to freeze it, which takes about 15 minutes. At the very end, you’ll add ¼ cup caramel, followed by ¾ cup chopped pralines. I thought the caramel would be a ribbon throughout the ice cream, but by the time the pralines were evenly incorporated, the caramel had blended in completely. This turned out to be a very good thing, because the flavor of the ice cream could not have been more heavenly! It needs another few hours in the freezer to completely firm up into a thick, creamy, amazing consistency.
So then… the brioche. Yeahhh, I wish I could say my brioche came out as seamlessly as the ice cream. This is meant to be a very simple brioche recipe, but it still takes a bit of practice to turn out a dough with the correct texture. You start by mixing the instant yeast with a bit of the bread flour, adding milk, and letting it ferment for about an hour. It will look quite puffed and alive after its nap!
Once that’s ready, you’ll add the whisked dry ingredients (the rest of the bread flour, plus sugar and salt) and 4 eggs to the bowl. Using the dough hook, let this mix for about 8-10 minutes, until you’ve got a smooth, elastic dough batting around. You’ll then start adding pieces of softened butter, one at a time. The dough will sort of break down into a slippery mass, but will quickly regain its dough-mound shape; meanwhile, the butter chunks will fly around the bowl at times, and eventually everything will get incorporated. This part of the process should take about 7-10 minutes (rough on the mixer!) and result in a smooth, uniform dough (…which is what I thought I had). The dough must then proof for 60-90 minutes, until it doubles in size.
It seemed fine when I set it to rest (bottom-left photo), but it was a buttery mess when I scraped it out of the bowl after proofing (bottom-right photo). I suspect that a) I didn’t mix the dough long enough to incorporate the butter properly (though I thought the dough looked smooth and elastic), and/or b) I overproofed the dough. I checked it at about 55 minutes, and it hadn’t quite doubled, so I let it go to a full hour plus a few minutes, and it had grown enormously in those 13 minutes! I don’t know what else could have caused the problem, and unfortunately I don’t know enough about the bread chemistry to make an accurate diagnosis.
At this point, you are supposed to form the dough into 12 balls, which will continue to rise in the buttered wells of a muffin pan. The greasy texture of my dough precluded me from forming anything that I might describe as “balls”, but I divided the dough anyway and put the pan in the fridge overnight as instructed. I had no idea if these butter-leaching blobs would turn into anything edible…
In the morning, I pulled the pan out and let the dough sit for another 90 minutes; it had grown quite a bit since going into the fridge! Then came the moment of truth: time to bake. I was utterly shocked to see that my funky dough did actually bake into something resembling buns! I pulled them out after 15 minutes, and although they were not remotely smooth-looking or uniform or pretty, they would certainly be able to harbor a generous scoop of ice cream!
On the recommendation of the recipe intro, I toasted the brioche halves before sandwiching in the ice cream– good move, friends, good move. Naturally I had to sample the rogue brioche; the buttery flavor was super, but the texture was aaaaaall kinds of wrong. I would have loved to re-bake in order to correct my dough problem, but I didn’t have time this week… because I am not on vacation like my Italian counterparts. (Although perhaps I should shut my trap, since I just enjoyed two months off of school…)
The praline ice cream is one of the best things I’ve ever made in my life (star of this recipe for me), and because I had lots of caramel left over, I decided to make the actual ice cream cake for which the recipe was developed. I barely have words to describe this amazing little frozen dessert– I can’t wait to make it again for Mardi Gras! I ended up reserving just a scoop of ice cream for one brioche sandwich, and I filled the rest with brownie cheesecake ice cream (meh), and in a nod to the Italian holiday for which we made these, I found a ricotta-fig ice cream. The praline ice cream was my hands-down favorite, and the ricotta-fig was nice as well. I had to conduct a very thorough and rigorous comparison test to determine the best ice cream flavor to compliment the brioche… but don’t feel too sorry for me. 😉
If you’d like to try your hand at brioche, head over to Baked Sunday Mornings for the Brioche Ice Cream Sandwiches recipe, and see how the other brioche bakers fared with this one. Whether you are celebrating Ferragosto or simply need a little relief from the August swelter, this recipe is a true treat– even with imperfect brioche! Fall baking is around the corner, but these make me want to linger in summer just a little longer. Also, I think it’s only right to go investigate ice cream sandwiches in Sicily…. *sigh*
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2015.