The Brady Bunch Challenge: Spicy Sweet Corn Ice Cream

Like butter drippin’ off a hot biscuit.

My particular friend and I have Brady-bunched our households recently, in a much less dramatic fashion than the TV show (he brings a near-teenager part-time, D, and I have a teenager, Sicily, who is full-time but who is also a working stiff with lots of friends and is not around as often as she used to be).

It has been challenging, which is an understatement along the lines of “That iceberg looks pretty big,” and “Is it dangerous that this zeppelin is filled with extremely explosive gas?”

It is hard to know whether the best way to do this is to rip the Band-Aid off and just shove everyone together with family-type events or to let things just happen.

If you have teenagers, you know both are loaded propositions. Trying to manufacture a new type of family can be saccharin and artificial, and teenagers tend to mostly want to hibernate in their own rooms. So if we force everyone to a nightly family dinner it might feel fake and super awkward, but when left to their own devices, the two teenagers tend to disappear to their respective rooms, emerging like hibernating bears for food and occasionally to wash a huge load of laundry and shower. This makes getting to know everyone in this new way difficult.

And then there is the challenge of nurturing and growing our own relationship in the face of surly teenagers, differing parenting styles, and the shit that is cohabitating with others (how are there so many freaking bobby pins and single socks in this house?!). How do you manage an adult relationship with children that is not based on those children?

If you are a parent who is still partnered with the other half of your offspring’s DNA, you have exactly zero idea of what I am talking about. That’s totally amazing, and I am truly happy for you in your relationship. DON’T WASTE IT.

If you have lost a spouse to divorce or death, and you have managed to pull your soggy, mangled heart off the wasteland of the floor that is your life and actually get out into the world and meet another person, you are in for a challenge that goes far beyond being vulnerable, confronting loss, and worrying about showing your naked self to someone new for the first time in ______ years.

Turns out, those things are easy when compared to navigating the treacherous waters of parenting someone else’s kid.

For the record, I will never be D’s mom. She has a mom who loves her fiercely, exactly the way a mother should. I don’t share the birth experience with D, and that in and of itself is a powerful connection that only a biological mother can feel.

Side note: I have an adopted brother. Adoptive parents can feel just as powerful a connection in a different way that is no less valid and potent. Don’t get mad and send me hate mail. I mean no disrespect.

But there is no way around it: I am an adult in D’s life, and she is a child in my house. Khristian is looking down the barrel of a 17-year-old teenager (my daughter) who lost a dad of her own and isn’t really looking for a replacement.

Do you see how things can become/have become/are becoming more complex?

Parenting is the worst best job when the kid is your own. I never wanted to be a parent. If I am being honest (which I always try to be), I am not a huge fan of kids in general (which is pretty funny since one of my callings in life has been as a teacher, both in a classroom and now on a yoga mat. But I digress.) So what do you call parenting when the worst best job applies to someone else’s kid?

How do you not be an asshole to a 12-year-old, or, at the very least, not feel like an asshole when you correct said 12-year-old in the same way you would correct your own child but when the 12-year-old is not, in fact, your 12-year-old?

It is complex. Add to this a biological mother who is struggling – understandably so – with this reconfiguration, and the layers begin to look geologic. I started this blog post a couple weeks ago, and as time passed things got more heated. For all intents and purposes, and even though D has moved in, I am an outsider to one of the main struggles in her former-family, looking in on a parental relationship that failed and continues to be problematic for the parents (and increasingly, for the child). The first sentence of this blog in its first draft asked which was harder: death or divorce.

When it comes to parenting the answer is very, very simple: divorce.

Divorced people who want nothing to do with each other are forced to interact when they share a child. That interaction will only get worse as the kid gets older and decisions get more complicated and more expensive. In contrast with Sicily, whose dead father is a keen and deeply felt knife-like absence on (increasingly predictable) occasions, Khristian’s former spouse is a keen and deeply felt knife-like presence in even the most mundane of daily decisions. These are the fogs of a former dynamic that don’t quite seem to be dissipating.

So in essence, as of now, it seems that the house is just not big enough for everyone who is here.

I talked to my therapist about this today (and I don’t care who knows). My particular friend, my sweet love – he is struggling. And so am I. I am angry, explosively so but with no proper target and no real right to be angry. I can see from the outside what I think should be done, but it’s not mine to do. And yet the center, as it is, cannot hold.

My therapist is pretty much right on with most things. Previous examples of her brilliance include the acronym SET when dealing with teenagers (Support, Empathy, Truth), an approach that revolutionized the way I dealt with The Kid when her teenager was hanging out. True to form, today she proposed that I approach the situation with this thing called “radical acceptance.”

Whereas depression says, “Nothing matters, so it’s pointless,” radical acceptance realizes that there is nothing to be done one way or the other; things just are the way they are.

In other words, there is nothing for me to do about the hovering presence of a former spouse.

Getting involved doesn’t help.

Having an opinion doesn’t help.

Getting angry/sad/bitchy about it doesn’t help.

I can listen. That’s about it.

And when I can’t listen anymore, I can even say, “Hey, man. I can’t hear this right now.”

Therapy is a fucking miracle sometimes.

In the meantime, there is always food. That constant thread.

The above-referenced 12-year-old is a big fan of ice cream (and the 17-year-old works at The Charmery in Hampden, bringing home samples after each shift). D is a talented maker of ice cream herself, but she has a palate that is, to be frank, picky, very selective , and difficult to please (it’s hard to compete with grilled cheese and tater tots). I made this sweet and spicy ice cream using corn harvested from a friend’s father’s garden on a whim, not wanting to waste either the corn (which I made into relish) or the cobs (which found their way into this recipe). D loves it, cayenne pepper and all.

I am not naive enough to think that ice cream – however delicious – will make this transition pain-free. As I write this, the adults in D’s life are still trying to get their shit together. All I can do, all any of us can do, is try to recognize that all of the conflict really has nothing to do with me and everything to do with a past that is still present for D and her father. Divorce is its own particular kind of hell, I think, a hell that expands and contracts with each passing year. This particular divorce comes with a morass of painful feelings that sit on our doorstep as we combine families. After supporting the people in my household through this, I figure the very least I can do is give them something sweet.

Spicy Sweet Corn Ice Cream

The first thing you taste is sweet corn, followed by a hint of vanilla and the scratchy burn of just a touch of cayenne. This is pretty much the best summer dessert ever.

Ingredients

4 corn cobs, corn removed (but don’t be too precious about it; you can leave some on there)

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups milk

1 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)

3/4 cup sugar, divided

6 egg yolks (make meringue with the whites, or give your dogs a treat)

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 cup whole milk yogurt

Method

Place heavy corn cobs, heavy cream, and milk in heavy saucepan and heat until bubbles form on the edges of the milk. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Remove the corn cobs from the cream/milk mixture, scraping all of the delicious bits off the cob with a spoon before pouring the milk through a fine mesh sieve. Return the milk to the heat. Scrape the paste from the inside of the vanilla bean and add to the milk (or add vanilla extract, if using) and add 1/2 cup of the sugar. Heat until bubbles begin to form on the sides of the pan, stirring occasionally.

Combine egg yolks, salt, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and cayenne in a bowl. Use a whisk to combine completely.

This next part is where you might completely ruin your custard, so go slowly. If you have no experience with this sort of thing, go at half the speed you might normally go.

Using a whisk and whisking constantly, pour a thin stream of the hot milk into the eggs. You can pour a little and whisk, or pour a thin stream constantly; you are bringing the cold eggs up to the temperature of the hot milk (or close) so that you don’t make sweet scrambled eggs (BARF).

Once you have poured and whisked about a cup of the hot milk into the eggs, add the egg mixture back into the pan and return to medium-low heat. This is the second part where you might screw it up, so go slow and keep the heat low. Cook gently, stirring constantly, for about ten minutes or until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Remove from heat and once again pass the custard through a  fine-mesh strainer. You need to chill this mixture before processing, but it’s important to bring the temperature down quickly as you have just created the perfect petri dish for bacteria (eggs and sugar and milk that’s warm). To do this, fill a large bowl (bigger than the bowl you have the custard in) with ice cubes and water, and place the custard bowl inside. Stir custard occasionally. When it has cooled enough to touch, remove from ice bath, cover with plastic wrap, and chill until completely cool (at least four hours but overnight is good, too, making this a great make-ahead dessert).

Chill according to manufacturer’s directions on your ice cream maker.

Cinnamon-Basil Ice Cream

Pumpkin who?
Pumpkin who?

While everyone is nattering on about pumpkin this and pumpkin that, I am just trying to make the most of what’s left of my scraggly herbs. My little herb patch has been spotty this year, and the basil was no exception – leggy and gone to seed early. #StupidBasil

But a late hot stretch of weather and a bit of humidity produced some lovely leaves, and I used them to make The World’s Easiest Ice Cream.

Literally.

I have used the same basic base and added whatever struck my fancy with spectacular results. Sure, you could make a fancy pants custard, but why would you if you don’t need to? A custard base can make the final product a little creamier and more lush, but tweaking the ratio of heavy cream to milk can help with that.

Give it a whirl.

Cinnamon-Basil Ice Cream

Ingredients

4 cups of dairy in any combination (half-n-half, heavy cream, milk, coconut milk – whatevs. The more cream, the richer the texture. I use whatever is in my ‘fridge.)

1/2 cup of sugar (again, you could add more, but why? This is just enough.)

Handful of basil (like a cup or so of leaves. More means more basil flavor.)

Splash of vanilla extract (a teaspoon or two. You could also use a whole bean, split and simmered with the dairy if you like.)

Tons of cinnamon (to taste, but I used probably three tablespoons. Maybe more. I like cinnamon.)

Method

Place dairy in a saucepan and gently heat until it is warm but not boiling. Little bubbles will form around the edges, and then you know it’s ready.

Remove from heat and add basil leaves. Stir until they are submerged.

Let this mixture cool to room temperature, then strain basil leaves out. Add sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon, and stir until sugar is dissolved.

Process this mixture according to your ice cream machine’s directions.

I freeze mine in a bread pan lined with plastic wrap so I can make easier lift it up and out when it’s ready. You can freeze yours in whatever you like. Or you can eat it right out of the ice cream maker when it is more like a milkshake. #YourMove

Pro tip: The dairy, sugar, and vanilla make an excellent base for any flavor. I have made mint chocolate chip with fresh mint, blueberry cheesecake, chocolate, and the paw paw ice cream in the previous post. Next up is strawberry-rosemary.

Sky’s the limit.

What’s your favorite flavor?

Local Ingredients: Way Down Yonder In The Pawpaw Patch

Where oh where is Susie?
Where oh where is Susie?

I have been minorly obsessed lately with pawpaws.

My particular friend and I were visiting friends Luke and Keveney at Redwing Farm in West Virginia when Keveney mentioned pawpaws in passing; her family grows apples commercially and she mentioned something about someone mentioning pawpaws (this is how my brain works, which is why I write everything down. #Senile).

You know those times when something just lodges itself in your brain and you can’t shake it loose? It’s like a tiny little worm, wiggling its way into your brain, burrowing deep.

For me, this was the pawpaw conversation.

It also doesn’t help when you become a bit like a dog with a bone about it and the little worm in your brain turns into a minor obsession that isn’t really able to be alleviated because the thing you are obsessed about is not really anywhere you can physically put your hands on it. Not yet anyway. So you think about it and roll it over in your mind and in the meantime summer turns to fall and you become aware that, at least for pawpaws, TIME IS RUNNING OUT.

Pawpaws are a very, very strange fruit. They are the largest indigenous fruit tree in North America, but they are tropical. They are the only tropical fruit tree found in a temperate climate, and the tree is deciduous. Harvest time is short, from mid-August to the end of October. They are native to 26 states from the Great Lakes to the Florida panhandle (and even now in Medford, Oregon).

In addition to being very confused about where they should actually be growing in the world, pawpaws are alternately temperamental as hell and ridiculously easy to grow. They can go from rock hard to ripe in 24 hours and once ripe have an on-the-counter shelf life of only a day or two (or a week in the ‘fridge).

But pawpaws thrive in low sunlight and are often found underneath the canopy, which makes them an easy harvest (they can even be maintained as dwarf trees for easiest picking, as the largest commercial cultivator of pawpaws right here in Maryland – Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard – does). The evidence of their ease of cultivation is apparent in the huge groves of trees located along the Susquehanna and Alleghany rivers as well as by the two pawpaw seedlings I currently have growing in pots in my backyard (which were germinated accidentally by a landscaper I met at the Hampden farmer’s market here in Baltimore). Most people who experience pawpaws do so quite accidentally, stumbling upon a grove of wild trees and sampling the fruit (which it should be said is generally a stupid thing to do, randomly sampling something that looks like fruit. #BeCarefulOutThere).

The history of the pawpaw finds First People using pawpaw’s fibrous branches for rope, Lewis and Clark relying on them for sustenance when their food ran out in 1806, and Thomas Jefferson cultivating them at Monticello. John James Audubon perched his yellow-billed cuckoo on a branch laden with pawpaws, and zebra swallowtail butterflies eat their leaves exclusively.

Cuckoo on a pawpaw tree, JJ Audubon.
Cuckoo on a pawpaw tree, JJ Audubon.

All well and good. History is lovely, but what do they taste like?

To find out, I headed to Two Boots Farm in Hampstead, Maryland. There is a pawpaw festival in Ohio that sounded like it could be interesting, but I didn’t particularly feel like driving six and a half hours to chase down a taste – I will never be Anthony Bourdain (which is good because, turns out, he has become something of a massive douche and pretentious fuck. So there’s that). Two Boots is located just 40 minutes from where I am currently typing this, and their little festival (partnered with Slow Food Baltimore) offered tastings and a tour of their orchard, plus the opportunity to purchase some pawpaws.

I sampled five varieties of pawpaw at Two Boots: Shenandoah, Allegheny, Susquehanna, PA Golden, and a small unknown variety called Wildcard (tasted like bubblegum).

And to be perfectly honest, which I always try to be, I am not sure how I feel about them.

Their texture may be off-putting to some. The fruits, which range in size from the two-inch Wildcard variety to the much larger four+ inch Shenandoah, have a strange custard-like texture (which is why they are often referred to incorrectly as a “custard apple” which has an entirely different botanical name altogether). This texture is broken up by large seeds that don’t separate cleanly from the flesh (I had visions of choking on the seed as we sampled – the flesh clings to the seed like mango strands cling to the pit and I could see myself inhaling a pit).

The taste is like nothing I have ever tasted before. It is most often compared to a cross between a mild-flavored mango and a banana (hence the nickname “Hoosier banana” or “Indiana banana,”which makes me laugh and think about sex in the Midwest, which may or may not be a laughing matter). I found this comparison to be true, with one additional sensation: astringency. If the pawpaw is not completely ripe, the closest part of the peel offers the slight sensation of astringency, as if you have mistakenly licked an anti-perspirant-slathered armpit.

This is not the sensation you want to experience in fruit.

But there is something deeply intriguing about the pawpaw for me, and it wasn’t until I purchased six pounds (three pounds each of the Shenandoah and Allegheny) that I figured out why.

It’s not the taste or the rarity or the fact that preparing pawpaws is a total pain in the ass (see below).

As I looked into the history behind this fruit, I suddenly remembered that my cousin Teddy used to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch” to me as a child (when I went by “Suzie” instead of Suzannah). Theodore Litovitz was a cousin but many decades older than me and a true genius. Growing up, he was the only person in my family to speak to me as if what I had to say mattered; he asked deep questions and listened when I answered, even when I was young. Maybe it had to do with the fact that we didn’t see him often, but he never seemed annoyed by what I had to say, never treated me like I was foolish or childish or in the way.

I remember sitting with Teddy on the lawnchairs that looked out over the Chesapeake Bay at his house in Annapolis, talking about school and watching the sunset. He always had time for me. He always listened. I always felt heard.

But he was mischievous and often a pain in the ass himself. Once when I was around six or seven, he told me about a magical chocolate bar he had at his house, one that grew back with every bite. It was late when he started this story, and we were leaving his house after Passover seder for a long drive back home. Thinking I had found a new permanent home with people who not only understoood me but would also feed me what was generally forbidden otherwise and not wanting to leave behind a special article of clothing I had just purchased, I turned to my mother and said, “Bring my long dress.”

That was probably the longest car ride home ever.

So Teddy and the pawpaws and being just slightly troublesome are deeply woven together in a way that makes the nature of my obsession over pawpaws more understandable. As I started to work with them, I found myself slowing down a bit, as one must when dealing with this fruit. Something about working with an ingredient that holds a deeply personal connection as well as a connection to the history of the nation in which I live made the experience of pawpaws more profound for me.

But pawpaws, as with many things worth doing and as previously mentioned, are a bit of a pain in the ass.

Choosing the proper one comes first: pawpaws are ripe when they separate from the tree with no resistance. Their flesh gives slightly, and as they ripen the flesh begins to deepen in color. Of the Shenandoah and the Alleghany varieties, I found the former easiest to work with as they are larger and offer more pulp.

Flavor-wise, pawpaws work best with tropical, mild flavors. In the three recipes I made, I paired them with pineapple, coconut, and fresh corn (the ice cream below, pawpaw fritters with fresh corn, and pawpaw-pineapple chia seed pie). The subtle flavor of pawpaws changes somewhat when they are heated, and I found that cold applications made for the best clean pawpaw flavor.

I started each recipe with a basic puree that can be used immediately or frozen. This puree used six Shenandoah pawpaws and the juice of one lime (lime prevents oxidation). Slice the pawpaws in half and remove the seeds. Place the pulp and the lime juice in a food processor and process until smooth. Press through a sieve, then use immediately or freeze in one-cup portions. Makes two and a half cups of puree.

I did also make a puree with the Allegheny pawpaws, but the same three pounds of fruit yielded less than two cups of puree. Best to eat these in hand.

My favorite application thus far was the ice cream. This ice cream has a subtle, delicate flavor that is not overshadowed by any one of the ingredients, which allows the pawpaws’ complexity to shine through. Plus, it’s easy, which makes the work to get the puree seem less.

Pawpaw Ice Cream With Toasted Cashews

Ingredients

1 cup pawpaw puree

1 can unsweetened coconut milk

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup sugar

splash of vanilla

1/2 cup of chopped cashews, toasted and lightly salted

Method

Combine all ingredients except for the cashews in a large bowl and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is smooth.

Place in ice cream machine and process according to directions.

In the last five minutes of churning, add the toasted cashews and allow them to mix in completely.

Full disclosure: I cannot resist a small bowl of this before it freezes completely. It’s like a milkshake rather than straight-up ice cream. I also like to place this between two gluten-free graham crackers for an ice cream sandwich.

As I worked with them pawpaws changed from an obsessive curiosity to something that connected me to someone I loved dearly and miss terribly. Which foods connect you to a time, place, or person?