I am motivated by scent everywhere I go. The smell of the forest floor or orange blossoms in the air inspires me so much more than the latest dish I ate. Knowing this, Vox Media and Visit Seattle invited me to explore Seattle for two days, following an itinerary designed to pique my obsession with scent and create a Seattle-inspired ice cream. It was an intense 48 hours with a film crew on back-to-back visits with makers and doers. From Woodinville Lavender Farm, the briny pebbly beach, an old growth forest, Fairmont Olympic Hotel’s Rooftop Apiary, to Theo Chocolate, coffee at Caffe Vita, Saké Nomi, and Seattle Cider Co. The scent of apples seemed unavoidable; giant, fragrant apples on the lavender farm, at the market, at the cidery. By the time I got home I knew what my flavor had to be: an apple scented ice cream. Problem is, I’ve been trying to do this for years with without success. This time, though, I was determined to break the case.
Apples have a wonderful honey-pink scent but when you puree apples and mix the puree with cream the scent is lost and diluted. It was one of the first flavors I tried to make back in my first month in business in 1996. I tried baking apples, making apple butter, too, but nothing ever worked to achieve the gorgeous fresh scent of a freshly picked, freshly sliced honeycrisp apple. But after walking through apple-scented air all over the city, and holding that in my head for weeks after, I had a breakthrough that seems obvious to me now, even if it took 21½ years to make the simple discovery. Instead of pureeing apples (which are high in water), use them like tea. Extract the water-soluble scent of pink apples directly into the cream, which also has a high water content. Infuse every molecule of water and some of the cream with the scent of apples. It works. And I’m going to give you the incredible recipe to make at home this Thanksgiving. But first, follow along on my journey, and check out this beautiful video of me gaining the inspiration and resolve I needed to make a flavor that I didn’t think was possible.
It was a damp day—the sort where scents rise up from the group and just hang there. The lavender wasn’t blooming so everything smelled a muddled, wet soft green. Nearby on the ground were giant apples rotting into the grass and soil. The smell of decomposing fruit is really a great smell. Think about the last time you went apple picking, and that apple-y scent—sweet, heavy, honeyed. That’s the aroma of fallen apples.
Lavender itself is very piney, and freshly distilled French lavender (which we got to do; see video) is very astringent. It also has notes of garbanzo beans and tomato can (that’s how I always identify French lavender). But I was also motivated by the exhausted lavender plants that smelled almost like oatmeal, which is one of the notes that we get from adding a bit of chamomile along with the apples in this recipe. Also, chamomile actually smells a bit apple-y!
We stopped at iconic Pike Place Market where I was handed a fresh apple straight from a knife more times than I could count — that’s apple season in Seattle! I felt immediately at home. I love the way you can close your eyes in just about any market around the world—take in the smells and sounds—and be immediately transported back to your home market, which, for me is the North Market. The place where I got my start; where I spent eight years making ice cream every day. It’s the combination of all of the spices, soups bubbling, breads baking at once.
When we walked in, the massive open space was filled with fresh, pink apple-scented air. There were tons of fresh apples from the urban canopy being stored in one room, crushed in another, and fermented in another to make into cider. I immediately thought: I want to make an ice cream that tastes the way this place smells. And then, But that’s impossible … isn’t it?
I literally thought about this scent for weeks. Even went apple picking here in Ohio to get it again. Eventually, I got my hypothesis: Can we steep and remove apples to scent the cream? We tried it, it worked. But then I also wanted to bring in some other aspects of the trip, the floral and plant story that is so clearly spoken in the city of Seattle. So in addition to using fresh apples in the ice cream base, I’ve added dried flowers—chamomile, osmanthus, and rose—to bring out apple blossom flavor, almost like the forest floor. Adding kefir gives the ice cream just a bit of acid and fermented flavor (a final nod to all the fermented things I encountered on in Seattle).
Here it is! I hope this will help you celebrate the things you are grateful for this Thanksgiving. I am grateful for ideas that move the world forward. Like steeping apples! Note that it’s important to have this year’s crop, I learned at the cidery that store-bought apples are often up to 2 years old. Just-picked apples really are more scent-ful.
Apple Bloom Ice Cream
Makes about 1 quart
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1½ ounces cream cheese, softened
- ⅛ teaspoon sea salt
- 1¾ cups heavy cream
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon dried rose petals
- 1 teaspoon dried osmanthus flowers
- 1 tablespoon dried chamomile flowers
- 2 just picked, gala or honeycrisp or other fragrant apples, washed and cut into ½-inch slices
- ⅓ cup plain kefir
In a small bowl, mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch to make a smooth slurry. Whisk the cream cheese in a medium bowl until smooth.
In a 4-quart saucepan, combine the remaining milk with heavy cream, sugar, and corn syrup, bring to a boil and cook for 4 minutes. Add the cornstarch slurry to the mixture and bring back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Strain the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese and whisk until smooth.
Place apples and dried flowers in a bowl and pour ice cream base over the ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator until completely cool, about 4 hours.
After it’s cooled, strain the mixture and pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister, add in the kefir, and turn on the machine. Once the ice cream mixture is thick and creamy, turn the machine off. Scoop the soft ice cream into a storage container. Press a sheet of parchment paper directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze for at least 4 hours in the coldest part of your freezer.
Serve with a light almond or vanilla cake and mead.