On experimentation, and an unexpected ice cream float
In my defense, I come by it naturally. Not only was I an oddly fearful kid—you wouldn’t find me within a 10-foot radius of a worm, much less eating one—but I’m also a baker by nature, precise, obedient, and fiercely devoted to my digital scale. Nurture plays in too: my mother taught me from an early age that a recipe should always be followed faithfully the first time through.* You give it an honest try once, and then you can tinker to your heart’s content—if, of course, you’re into that kind of thing. I’ve been known to throw in an extra handful of candied ginger, yes, or substitute blackberries for blue, but generally, I find a deep and dependable satisfaction in following directions.
This concept is a source of perpetual amusement for Brandon, who may have never—had I not come along—completed a recipe without at least a tweaking or two. I’m the one hunched over the cookbook; he’s got his fingers in the pot. I’m reaching for the calculator; he’s sniffing at spice jars. I make a pretty soufflé, damn it, but he can spin tamarind, roasted garlic, and Parmigiano Reggiano into a brilliant Italy-meets-India chutney. If I get a gold star for reading comprehension, he gets detention—and then a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. It’s all well and good, dear reader: we’re a perfect pair and so on and so forth, blah blah blah. But let’s not fool ourselves: deep down, no one really likes a teacher’s pet, including the pet herself, and slavishly following directions only feels sexy if you’re cooking in your underwear.
So I’ve been working on it. With Brandon back in New York, I have plenty of room—roughly three thousand miles’ worth—for honing my experimentation skills. And with less than two weeks to go before my next visit east, I’m happy to report that I’ve made quite a bit of progress. You can well imagine my delight when I called him to report that I’d tried a new cookie recipe—and that I’d tweaked it on the very first go.
“Really? What did you change?” he asked incredulously.
“Well, the recipe called for two cups of rolled oats, but instead, I used 1 ½ cups rolled oats and ½ cup quick-cook!” I announced triumphantly. “And I used muscovado sugar instead of regular light brown!”
Needless to say, he’s still chuckling to himself.
But last night, dear reader, I gave the genius reason to be jealous.
It was simple, really. A few weeks ago, we’d picked up a bottle of Black Boss Porter, which had since been languishing in my fridge. A big, dark, roasty beer that coats the tongue with a wash of coffee, caramel, malt, molasses, and maple syrup, it’s delicious—but not exactly a prime dinner companion. So it waited, and I wondered. And then I got thirsty, as I’ve been known to do—for dessert. Running with a vague recollection of something strange I’d once read in a restaurant review, I took down a drinking glass and my trusty spring-loaded ice cream scoop. I stacked three golf-ball-size scoops of vanilla bean ice cream in the glass, popped open the porter, and poured. It fizzed; it foamed; it had all the trappings of a real experiment.
The first spoonful was luscious, like an alcoholic affogato. It was an ice cream float gone guileful, a schoolmarm with a swagger. I dug the spoon in deeper: it was complex, sophisticated, even sultry—but also strangely bitter, peppery, unpleasantly zingy with carbonation. Scooping out the last melting bites of beer-slicked ice cream, I called Brandon to confer—and, of course, to gloat. It was nobody’s unmitigated success, but with a little experimentation, it has potential.
And if I may be so daring, I think the same can be said of this teacher’s pet.
(Not Root-) Beer Float
Fittingly enough, this recipe—or rather, rough formula—needs no real directions. Begin by considering your pairings: you’ll need a dark or amber beer with a full, toasty-sweet flavor, and good-quality ice cream. For this first go, I used a bottle of Black Boss Porter, a Baltic porter from Poland, and Ben and Jerry’s basic organic vanilla—compelling enough, but a little unbalanced. Next time I think I’ll opt for a coffee or espresso ice cream to better complement the beer’s deep coffee flavors. If we’re tinkering and tweaking on the beer end of the equation, I’d recommend trying ice cream floats with any variety of porter or stout—maybe even a toasty amber or Belgian ale—or, for more tender palates, a fruit lambic, such as Lindemans. When it comes to proportions, I found that I liked a high ratio of ice cream to beer—think hot-fudge sundae with beer instead of fudge.
Whatever you do, scoop, pour, and eat. And tweak accordingly.
*Bless you, Mom. Next weekend, wanna get crazy and put the measuring cups down the garbage disposal? Don’t worry; we can buy new ones afterwards.