I’m sure I’m guilty of a previous tirade, about food items that pose as dairy. With all due respect to my vegan friends, and with all due empathy to those folks, like my son, who are allergic — some things should just either be dairy, or not be at all. I developed this extreme opinion during the three or so months I was completely dairy-free, during my son’s first year of life when we figured out that milk was a problem for him.
Some examples of things that, in my opinion, do little to improve the world of food:
- soy cheese: Even in my moments of deepest dairy need, I would not stoop so low. It doesn’t come remotely close to its dairy counterpart, and is all-around creepy, when you think about it.
- soy yogurt: Mentioned this here, but it has an almost chemical aftertaste, a sting, that never leaves you.
- rice and soy ice “dreams”: A friend heard desperation in my voice one time, and rushed over a carton of rice-milk-based frozen dessert. Let’s just say that I loved my friend’s attempt, but was left with an even larger gaping hole in my hungry, hungry soul.
A couple years ago, when my son turned two, I wanted to make him ice cream. So I attempted a soy-milk-based concoction, banana-flavored; it was a complete disaster. Icy, with no depth of flavor — it was like I took a blender, threw some plain soy milk and a banana in it, gave it a whirl, and stuck the whole thing in the freezer. My son, ever the sensitive palate, rejected it outright. The quart found a new life in our garbage disposal.
But now — now, it’s two years later. The boy is about to turn four, and I now have two more years of non-dairy and ice cream cookery under my belt. I discovered the wonderful world of coconut milk about 6 months ago, and it has changed our world of non-dairy thinking. We now enjoy dairy-free pancakes on Saturday mornings that are so delicate and rich and indiscernible from our old milk-laden standby recipe; I also treat the kids once or twice a week to delicious dairy-free hot cocoa — thick and creamy enough that my milk-loving daughter doesn’t even realize what’s missing. Coconut milk is magical because it has plenty of fat — a good kind of fat — so it’s the only substitute for milk that will actually create a similar consistency to its dairy counterpart. The downside is that if you use too much of it, the coconut flavor will be very present — not always a good thing (think coconut milk cheese? I don’t think so).
But in ice cream, that mild coconut flavor is just fine. So I took a recipe for a french-style vanilla ice cream, from David Lebovitz’s ice cream book, and replaced all of the dairy with canned, full-fat coconut milk. I chose a french-style — meaning a custard-based ice cream that utilizes egg yolks — to max out the richness. What resulted was an extremely milk-like concoction. With, yes — a mild coconut flavor. But the texture is so remarkably like real ice cream — I won’t have to make any excuses while decorating each slice of cake with a scoop.
So the Little Man will finally have a chance to enjoy a real cake-and-ice-cream birthday experience — a good way for us all to ring in his fifth year of life. While probably a misnomer, I kept the name “ice cream,” even though it’s dairy-free, because it really is creamy, and calling it a “frozen dessert” would not do it justice.
Dairy-free Vanilla Ice Cream
adapted from recipe in David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop
- 3 cups full-fat coconut milk (from 2 cans — I like Thai Kitchen, Chaokoh, and 365 brands)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- pinch (about 1/8 tsp) table salt
- 1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
- 5 large egg yolks
- 3/4 tsp vanilla extract
Scoop the contents of both cans of coconut milk into a glass bowl or 4-cup glass measure. Warm in the microwave for about a minute, stirring about every 30 seconds, until the thick chunks of coconut cream liquefy and the mixture is smooth. Measure out 2 cups of the coconut milk, and pour it into a saucepan, along with the sugar and salt. Place over low heat, and warm the mixture until very warm to the touch, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the warm mixture and add the bean as well. Cover, remove from heat, and let steep at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Measure out another cup of coconut milk (discard what is left, or reserve for another use) and pour it into a large bowl. Set a mesh strainer on top of the bowl, and set aside. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly ladle about 1/3 of the warm, steeped coconut milk from the saucepan into the egg yolks, whisking constantly while you pour (this keeps the eggs from scrambling). The pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan.
Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a flat-ended wooden spoon or silicone spatula, scraping the bottom of the pan as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of the spatula (or 170º on an instant-read thermometer — don’t let it go above 185º or your eggs will scramble). Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the coconut milk. Add the vanilla bean to the mixture, and stir over an ice bath to cool.
Refrigerate for at least several hours or overnight to chill completely, remove the vanilla bean, and freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.
* Make dairy-free chocolate chip ice cream: Melt 5 oz. of dairy-free bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (Ghirardelli semi-sweet is usually milk-free) over a double-boiler. Drizzle the warm chocolate into the ice cream during the last moments of churning. The chocolate will freeze and break up at contact with the cold churning ice cream, leaving you with little bits of chocolate throughout.