(NYTIMES) - Two summers ago, a friend and I met for coffee and ice cream.
She got a scoop of vegan mint chip – and a whole-milk cappuccino.
I just like the vegan version better, she explained, offering me a bite.
Whether the vegan mint chip was better than its dairy iteration is debatable. But what was clear was that it was absolutely delicious: silky, creamy and very smooth. It was also totally superior to the chalky, soya-based Tofutti Cuties my lactose-avoiding friends got stuck with at the end of every summer barbecue, for lack of a better option.
Happily, this is no longer the case.
The past few years have been a glorious time for vegans and others who forgo dairy.
And as the demand for non-dairy explodes, so does the number of products on the market, including a slew of brand-new non-dairy ice creams, yogurts and cheeses, along with the various nut and plant milks used to make them. Even better, many of these new products actually taste great, which is a boon whether you strictly avoid dairy at all costs or just want to expand your creamy horizons.
Mr Mark Van Buskirk, group vice-president for grocery merchandising at Albertsons, which operates the Safeway supermarket chain, among others, said that sales of all non-dairy products had been steadily increasing over the past two years, with packaged non-dairy ice cream leading the way (up by 50 per cent over the last 12 months).
He sees this trend continuing, keeping in step with the decline in sales of traditional dairy products.
“The growth in nut milks in particular has been exponential compared with regular dairy,” he said, adding that soya milk sales are decreasing as those of nut and other plant milks rise.
For home cooks, this is promising territory, a rich if head-spinning new world of ingredients to experiment with.
Supermarket shelves are now filled with packets of plant-based milks. Cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, oat, flax, rice, quinoa and hemp varieties have joined the ranks of coconut, soya and almond milks.
On a trip to France this summer, I even sampled chestnut milk and I am still kicking myself for not buying an extra suitcase to haul home containers of the sweet, gentle elixir.
But with so many options, which plant-based milk, or combination of milks, makes the best homemade non-dairy ice cream?
A few years ago, I experimented with ratios of cream, milk and eggs to create a master recipe for a custard ice cream base. So it seemed only natural that I give non-dairy ice cream the same thorough treatment, creating an adaptable base, along with a grid of ways to flavour it.
But even before I began my testing, I had some experience making non-dairy ice creams, most of them relying on readily available, relatively inexpensive coconut milk. With its high fat content and creamy texture, coconut milk – or, better still, coconut cream – is a great substitute for dairy. The downside is that the coconut milk has a pronounced coconut flavor, even when it is blended with intense ingredients such as chocolate, peanut butter or raspberry.
If you do not mind the flavour, coconut cream is a great way to go. GoodPop, a company in Austin, Texas, producing both dairy and non-dairy ice cream pops, uses coconut milk and cream in all its bases.
Mr Daniel Goetz, the company’s founder, turned to coconut after rejecting soya milk because of problems finding a reliable organic, fair-trade supply, and concerns about genetically modified soya beans. Finding what he called a “clean and honest” supply of organic, fair-trade coconut milk was easier than doing the same for soya or many nut milks.
He makes sure all his creamy non-dairy creations work well with coconut, looking to flavours such as lime and orange. His hugely popular frozen orange coconut cream pop is as beloved by “people who have never even heard of veganism as it is by vegans”, he said.
He advises home cooks looking to make non-dairy ice cream out of coconut milk to add vanilla and sea salt. “They help tame the coconut flavour,” he said.
But another technique to mellow the flavour of coconut milk or cream is to combine it with a different non-dairy milk. I ended up doing just that in my master recipe for a non-dairy base.
After testing all the available milk options, I concluded that hemp and cashew milk make the best partners for the coconut. Mildly flavoured and very creamy, hemp and cashew milks are relatively easy to find at health-food stores and supermarkets. Use either in combination with the coconut milk.
I slightly preferred the hemp milk to the cashew one because it is just a bit richer, and ended up dismissing almond, rice, quinoa, flax and oat milks, which I did not find rich enough, and macadamia, because its flavour was too intense. But play around with the base and customise it to your taste.
Mr Nicholas Morgenstern, founder of Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has been experimenting with different plant-based milks since his shop opened in 2014. “I’ve been chasing vegan ice cream for years,” he said, “and they are really hard to do well.”
For a while, he was making his own Brazil nut milk to use as the base. But when that became prohibitively expensive, he switched to a combination of coconut, hemp and almond milks. “The hemp milk gets the coconut flavour to relax,” he said. “It’s rich enough to feel really creamy, but neutral enough not to interfere with any ingredients you want to add.”
One thing he has noticed in terms of his non-dairy offerings is that they are just as popular with those who love dairy as they are with those who avoid it at all costs. This is a complete turnaround from a few years ago, when dairy eaters routinely eschewed vegan offerings, assuming they could not possibly taste as good as regular, butter fat-rich ice cream.
“These days, people don’t care whether it’s vegan or not,” he said. “They are attracted to the flavour profile. Then when they taste it, they see that it can be just as good or maybe even better than regular ice cream.”
Nondairy Ice Cream Base
2 cups hemp or cashew milk
1 can coconut cream or whole coconut milk (not refrigerated non-dairy beverage or light coconut milk)
1/2 cup light corn syrup or substitute 1/3 cup agave syrup
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbs vodka (optional)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Your choice of flavouring (see below)
1. In a medium pot, combine hemp or cashew milk, coconut cream, corn syrup, sugar and salt, and bring to a simmer. Simmer until sugar dissolves, about five minutes. Let cool in the pot.
2. Transfer to a container and stir in vodka, if using, and vanilla. Chill for at least four hours or overnight. Transfer mixture to an ice-cream maker and chill according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Makes about 1.1 litres of ice cream
Building on the base with a world of flavours
Vanilla, coffee or green tea: If making vanilla ice cream, slice two vanilla beans in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add seeds and pods to the base mixture before simmering; or use 1/2 cup whole coffee beans coarsely ground in a coffee grinder or food processor; or use 1/4 cup green tea leaves. After simmering, let steep off the heat for 30 minutes before straining. Chill as directed.
Mint or basil: In a blender, combine one cup clean and dry mint or basil leaves with coconut cream and hemp milk. Use herb cream and milk to make the base; let steep off the heat for 30 minutes before straining. Chill.
Cinnamon: Break a 10cm-long cinnamon stick into a food processor. Add 1/2 cup granulated sugar and pulse until finely ground. Use cinnamon sugar instead of plain sugar to make the base. Let steep off the heat for 30 minutes before straining. Chill.
Lemon or lime: In a blender, combine zest of three lemons or limes with coconut cream and hemp milk. Use citrus mixture instead of plain mixture to make the base, omitting the vanilla. Once cool, stir in 1 Tbs fresh lemon or lime juice. Chill.
Strawberry or raspberry: Make the base with only one cup hemp or cashew milk. In a blender, puree about 450g of strawberries with 2 to 3 Tbs sugar, depending on their sweetness (taste and add more sugar or 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice if necessary). Stir into base before chilling. Strain before churning if using raspberries.
Peach or apricot: Pit and dice three cups peaches or apricots (no need to peel them). In a medium pot, simmer fruit with 1/4 cup sugar until tender, about 10 minutes. Puree in a food processor or blender. Make the base with only one cup hemp or cashew milk; stir in fruit puree and replace vanilla extract with a few drops almond extract, if desired. Chill.
Cherry: In a medium pot, simmer three cups pitted cherries (from about 450g) with 2 to 3 Tbs sugar to taste, until cherries are very soft, about 10 minutes. Puree in a food processor or blender. Make the base with only one cup hemp or cashew milk; stir in fruit puree and replace vanilla extract with a few drops kirsch, if desired. Chill.
Banana: In a blender, puree four very ripe medium bananas, 2 Tbs sugar, 1 Tbs lemon juice and a pinch of salt until smooth. Make the base with only one cup hemp or cashew milk; stir in fruit puree. Chill.
CHOCOLATE AND CARAMEL
Chocolate: Make base with one cup coconut cream, 11/2 cups hemp or cashew milk and 3 Tbs Dutch-process cocoa powder; pour hot base over 80g chopped chocolate. Stir until smooth, then blend if necessary to remove clumps. Chill.
Chocolate hazelnut: Make base with one cup coconut cream and 3 Tbs corn syrup. While simmering, whisk in one cup vegan hazelnut spread until smooth. Chill.
Salted caramel: In a medium pot, melt 3/4 cup sugar with 3 Tbs water, swirling pot frequently, until sugar turns mahogany brown. Continue making base in the same pot, omitting sugar and salt. Make sure caramel melts and cream mixture is completely smooth. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp flaky sea salt into base during last two minutes of churning.
Butterscotch bourbon: Make the salted caramel variation using 1/2 cup sugar for the caramel and not letting it get too dark in colour (it should be reddish brown rather than dark mahogany brown). Stir 1 Tbs bourbon into base before chilling. Omit the vodka and flaky sea salt.
Almond: In a medium pot over medium heat, cook 1/2 cup sliced almonds with 2 Tbs sugar and a pinch of salt until deep golden and caramelised, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate; reserve. In the same pot, toast one cup sliced almonds until deep golden for about five minutes. Make base recipe in the same pot; let steep for one hour before straining (press down hard on solids). Stir in 1/4 tsp almond extract, then chill. Break reserved nuts into pieces and add to base during last two minutes of churning.
Pistachio: Make base using one cup coconut cream. Whisk in one cup unsweetened pistachio paste and 1/4 tsp almond extract; chill.
Peanut butter: Make base using one cup coconut cream. Whisk in one cup natural smooth peanut butter; chill.
Coconut: In a medium pot, toast 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut until deep golden, about five minutes. Transfer to a plate; reserve. In the same pot, toast one cup shredded unsweetened coconut until deep golden for five minutes. Make base recipe in same pot, using two cans coconut milk instead of cream and hemp milk. Let custard steep off heat for one hour before straining (press down hard on solids); replace vanilla extract with a few drops coconut extract. Add reserved coconut to base during last two minutes of churning.