Sichuan Pepper Ice Cream with Brown Sugar Sesame Swirl (Optional)
Published Oct 13, 2021, Updated Oct 02, 2023
Flower Pepper Ice Cream
Believe me when I tell you that Sichuan pepper and ice cream are a case of opposites attract. I had heard tell of this ice cream flavor for a while, but was skeptical myself: “What?” I thought. The spice that brings the citrusy, numbing punch to mapo tofu and hot pot and numerous other fiery Sichuan dishes being used as the main flavor of a dessert? But then I finally made this ice cream, and—wowza—it was a revelation.
We think of Sichuan pepper, or huajiao, as powerful and spicy and numbing. Which it is, when delivered straight, or in oil or broth. Yet when it is infused in cream, huajiao—which translates as flower pepper— shows its softer side, becoming floral and subtle (but in no way shrinking) and beguiling.
Let me be clear: This ice cream is not numbing. But without the buzz, you can more fully focus on the taste of Sichuan’s definitive spice. If someone handed you this ice cream unawares, you probably wouldn’t be able to identify it by taste alone. You’d search your memory for a familiar flavor, and you’d come up with a blank. Even its citrus profile–it’s a member of the citrus family—eludes the tastebuds in this presentation, in favor of a floral sweetness. But I can guarantee you that lack of familiarity wouldn’t matter. You’d finish the bowl and ask questions later.
One caveat is that when making sweets, I highly recommend using gongjiao, or Tribute Pepper, a specific variety of Sichuan pepper grown in the village of Qingxi, in the county of Hanyuan, in the province of Sichuan. Hanyuan pepper in general tastes quite different from its red sibling, dahongpao Sichuan pepper. It’s a bit hard to describe, but I think of dahongpao as more savory and earthy, and Qingxi gongjiao, while equally robust and numbing, as more sweet and floral. So therefore, I always choose gongjiao for desserts.
Having said that, I could not help myself from garnishing my gongjiao ice cream with dahongpao peppercorns (see top photo). Dahongpao translates as big red robe, and the berries of the highest grade dahongpao open into the most beautiful flowers, which the smaller gongjiao species does not often do. Garnishing with peppercorns is a bit dangerous, however, as you’ll have to instruct people not to eat them—until, perhaps, at the very end, if they’re craving that numbing sensation.
Still, for flavor, go for gongjiao. You may actually want to garnish not with peppercorns but with this addictive brown-sugar sesame-paste swirl I came up with for a subsequent batch. The swirl adds this almost savory, nutty counterpoint to the sweetly floral base for a whole other experience.
So how did I come up with this recipe? I followed rumors of a Sichuan pepper ice cream served at New York City’s famed Van Leeuwen ice cream shop. When I visited in person a while back, the flavor was not on offer, but I easily found the recipe in the founders’ cookbook. After a couple of batches, I ended up adapting their delicious recipe by using David Lebovitz’s method, which I have long relied on for ice cream, mainly because it produces equal results with less trouble—no double boilers required. (But, sorry, you do still need an ice cream maker of some kind.)
In the Van Leeuwen method you steep the Sichuan pepper in the milk and cream after heating it up over a double boiler.
In the Lebovitz method of infusing a flavor into ice cream (his method for vanilla pods), you merely heat up the milk in a small pan, then add the peppercorns to steep. I found that steeping them for one hour in a covered pan provides a strong enough taste to make a real statement.
After you’ve strained the Sichuan pepper milk, you use it to make a simple custard. You know when it is done because it will coat the back of your spoon like this. Mine is a bit lumpy here, but it doesn’t matter because you’re going to strain it into the bowl of chilled cream that is waiting in an ice-water bath.
After you’ve combined the custard with the cream, you simply transfer it to the refrigerator for a long chill, preferably overnight. The next day, churn according to your ice cream maker’s instructions, or until it is a soft-serve consistency. You then remove it to a container and freeze for a few hours to solidify it.
While the whole family loves the simple huajiao ice cream, I eventually decided that the Mala Market stoneground sesame paste, nutty and savory as it is, would be an ideal counterpoint to the sweet ice cream base. I also thought of Tiger boba—the brown-sugar-streaked milk tea that was invented in Taiwan and is trendy in big U.S. cities as well. It is made with Chinese brown sugar, an unrefined sugar with high molasses content and deep flavor. How about a Tiger swirl, bumped up with nutty sesame paste, complementing the floral Sichuan pepper cream? The answer, was, hell yes, that combo is ultra, uber good.
To add a swirl to ice cream, you layer the just-churned ice cream with alternating layers of swirl, into the container you’ll freeze it in. You literally just drizzle or drip the swirl onto the ice cream, no need to even stir it. Here I did three layers of ice cream and three layers of brown-sugar-sesame-paste drizzle. And once it’s frozen, you have swirl. Swoon.
Don’t overdo the swirl, as you don’t want to detract too much from the Sichuan pepper. If you have drizzle left over, try not to eat it all straight out of its bowl, though you’ll be tempted to, and save it to pour over store-bought vanilla ice cream when the Sichuan pepper ice cream is all gone. Or even better, swirl the brown-sugar-sesame-paste into Kathy’s baked niangao, a mochi-like dessert bar. I tried this and it was another match made in heaven.
Sichuan Pepper Ice Cream With (Optional) Brown Sugar Sesame Swirl
- Ice cream maker
Optional Brown Sugar Sesame Swirl
- ⅓ cup unrefined brown sugar (Chinese brown sugar, dark muscovado or similar)
- ⅛ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 4 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste (well-stirred mix of paste and its oil)
- 1¼ cup whole milk
- ½ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 3 tablespoons (8g) red Sichuan peppercorns (preferably gongjiao, Tribute Pepper)
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 5 large egg yolks
Brown Sugar Sesame Swirl
- Mix brown sugar and salt with 4 tablespoons water in a small saucepan. Heat just until sugar is completely dissolved in the water, with no graininess. Let cool completely.
- Add sesame paste to cooled syrup 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking to incorporate until smooth. Mixture should be thick but pourable; if too thick add more oil from the sesame paste jar. Refrigerate until use, which will thicken it somewhat.
- Heat the milk, sugar and salt until it just barely starts to simmer. Remove from heat, stir in Sichuan peppercorns and cover with a lid. Steep for 1 hour. Then strain the milk to remove the peppercorns, and return milk to the pan.
- Create an ice bath by nesting one large bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice and water. Add the heavy cream to the top bowl.
- In another bowl or large measuring cup, whisk the egg yolks until mixed. Reheat the milk, then slowly pour some of the milk into the egg yolks, whisking well to combine. Continue adding milk and whisking until you've added about half of the milk. Then add the milk and egg mixture to the pan with the remaining milk. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens and the custard coats the back of your spoon or rubber spatula.
- Strain the custard through a fine-mesh strainer into the waiting bowl of heavy cream, and mix well. Refrigerate several hours until completely cooled or, preferably, overnight.
- Add the cooled custard to an ice cream maker and churn per its instructions, until the ice cream is a soft-serve consistency. If you're making Sichuan pepper ice cream without additions, simply transfer the ice cream to a 1 quart/liter container and freeze. If you are adding the optional brown sugar sesame swirl, quickly layer the ice cream and the swirl into the container. Spoon ⅓ of the ice cream into the bottom of the container in an even layer. Drip and drizzle the sesame swirl over that layer. Repeat 2 more times, ending with a sesame swirl on top. Freeze for several hours.
Tried this recipe?