In 2009, when I visited Tokyo’s Cup Ice Cream Museum (yes, that exists), I was overwhelmed by the number of flavors which were well, non-standard. Chicken wing? Charcoal? Viper?? Most of these flavors seemed kitschy, rather than a carefully composed dessert. Weighing my options, I decided to pass on the octopus ice cream, and opted for the relatively tame wasabi flavor instead.
In the intervening years, America’s love for sweet & salty combined with craft ice cream making to create an explosion of sweet-savory ice creams. Brooklyn’s L’Albero dei Gelati is known for their savory flavors, and it was there that I first tried gelato with blue cheese and yellow bell pepper. Over in Williamsburg, OddFellows is known for unusual flavor pairings, and did a limited run of foie gras and peanut butter ice cream, which I loved. Then, I went to a Masters of Social Gastronomy talk on the history of ice cream, and it was there that I first pondered the possibilities of oyster ice cream.
While strawberry was certainly a crowdpleaser, during colonial times, it was not unheard of to serve savory ice creams flavored with chestnut, asparagus or parmesan. And of course, there was oyster ice cream. First Lady Dolley Madison was said to prefer oyster ice cream, and used oysters from the Potomac River to flavor her dessert. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is said to mention oyster ice cream, and it was a favorite of Mark Twain’s.
Or maybe not. In an investigative piece on the history of oyster ice cream, Alex Swerdloff debunks the mythology that oyster ice cream was a popular American foodstuff, finding no evidence that it was favored by our Founding Fathers (or their wives), and no trace of it in Mark Twain’s literature. (I too did a Google Books search of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and found no trace of oysters.) In fact, there’s little to suggest that it was popularly eaten, so perhaps the thought of oyster ice cream was as off-putting two centuries ago as it is today.
Regardless of whether it was popular, there is one published recipe that is often cited as evidence that the dish existed. In The Virginia Housewife, by Mary Randolph, you can find instructions for oyster ice cream circa 1824. It more or less involves making oyster chowder (complete with ham, thyme and onions), straining out the solids, and freezing it. This probably doesn’t sound like something you’d want to try, but a reporter from The Virginian-Pilot made it so we don’t have to. Supposedly the reactions were mixed, in a meh to worse sort of way. One person had “nearly thrown up.”
So maybe the traditional oyster ice cream isn’t suitable for modern palates, but surely there is a way to combine the salt of oysters with ice cream in a harmonious way. After all, we’ve successfully combined oysters, beer and ice, what’s one more step towards delicious ice cream goodness with a hint of fine brine?
Because the Internet is a wonderful place, there’s already a Youtube video on how to make oyster ice cream, courtesy of Chef Kyle Schutte in Hollywood, CA. His method is pretty straightforward, if you have a Vitamix blender, vacuum sealer, sous vide machine and liquid nitrogen. Luckily, it’s quite possible to make this at home with a little more time and elbow grease. I also wanted to accent the oyster ice cream with variations on the traditional accompaniments. Instead of Guinness, I added a drizzle of chocolate stout sauce, and in lieu of lemon, I included a few pieces of candied lemon peel. The results were fantastic: creamy sweetness paired with warm salts and a hint of savory complexity in the ice cream, and no semblance of fishiness.
So, without further ado, here’s a recipe for oyster ice cream sundaes. In the words of Mary Randolph, “Give it a try, I dare you.” 🙂
Oyster Ice Cream
- 1 c heavy cream
- 1/2 c whole milk
- 3/8 c sugar
- 1/4 t kosher salt
- 1 T non-fat powdered milk
- 6 oysters, shucked, liquor reserved
- In a large bowl or blender, mix together all ingredients except the oysters.
- Move the milk mixture to a small pot, preferably with a thick bottom. Add the oysters and their liquor. Heat the mixture to foaming (but not a rolling boil), whisk periodically, and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Remove the oyster solids with a fine mesh strainer. Chill the ice cream base overnight. Make sure your ice cream bowl is in the freezer.
- The next day, churn the ice cream until it is frozen, approximately 15 minutes (or follow your manufacturer's directions). Pack the ice cream into an airtight container and freeze for at least 4 hours.
- Suggested serving: After a round of raw oysters, oyster chowder and seafood pasta, cap off the night with a scoop of oyster ice cream on a bed of brownie, with chocolate stout sauce and candied lemon peel. You can thank us later.
Chocolate Stout Sauce
- 1/4 c sugar
- 2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/4 Guiness or other stout beer
- pinch of salt
- 2 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
- In a small pot, whisk together the sugar, cocoa and beer. Bring to a boil and lower heat to a simmer for 5 min.
- Remove the pot from heat and add the chocolate. Whisk to combine thoroughly, until melted.