My wife ordered vanilla ice cream with pretzel pieces mixed in, and caramel sauce on top, and was enraptured. It made perfect sense; we all know salt and caramel go great together. The pretzels provide the salt along with a beautiful crunch and that warm, toasted flavor.
So I thought, why not go one better? Let’s make the ice cream itself taste like pretzels. I remembered that Alex and Aki had made pumpernickel ice cream, so I was pretty sure it would be possible.
The results have been great! The pretzel flavor is very present and satisfying. We like to eat it as a simple sundae, with a few pretzel pieces and a dark caramel sauce. (I love the caramel sauce recipe in the the Tartine cookbook but with the sugar cooked darker, almost to burned.)
I decided to go with a Philadelphia-style ice cream that uses no eggs. My thought was that this would allow the pretzel flavor to shine through even more, and also it simplifies the process because I can infuse the pretzels in cold milk and then go directly to the ice-cream machine.
On my first try, I used salted pretzels because that was all I had around. Worried that they would contribute too much salt, I rinsed them first. The salt level was ok, but too uniform. So for my more recent batch, I used unsalted pretzels and then added Maldon (aka the world’s greatest salt) after the ice cream was made. This allows the flaky salt crystals to stay undissolved so you hit them more randomly, which is pleasing.
I would not recommend adding vanilla to this mix, even though it might seem tempting. It has a tendency to overpower the pretzel.
The soaked pretzels are interesting in themselves. I’ve tried rebaking them to crisp and adding salt; it gives you this oddly rich pretzel which is ok but not earth shattering so far. So for now, I compost them but I’d love to hear other ideas.
I also considered making my own pretzel crackers for this recipe to maximize surface area, especially since Harold McGee had this incredible piece about how to make a strong enough alkali to get a real pretzel flavor. But in the end, I concluded that if you use mini-pretzels, the surface-to-interior ratio is pretty high anyhow so it doesn’t seem worth the extra fuss.
I’d also be curious to see what happens if you actually puree some of the soaked pretzels into the base; not sure what effect the cooked starch would have on ice cream.
Here’s how I’m currently making it:
Pretzel Ice Cream
Yields about 3 cups
- 2 cups whole milk, divided
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 8 ounces unsalted mini pretzels
- flaky sea salt
- for serving: salted pretzels, dark caramel sauce
- In a microwavable bowl, stir together 1 cup of whole milk with the sugar. Microwave on high for 2 minutes or until the sugar is dissolved.
- In a large container with a lid, combine the sugared milk, remaining cup of milk, cream, and pretzels. Refrigerate for at least two hours, shaking occasionally. Taste and confirm that the cream has absorbed enough pretzel flavor; if not, infuse longer.
- In a colander, strain the cream mixture, pressing down on the pretzels to extract as much liquid as possible. Then pass the cream again through a fine sieve to remove little bits of pretzel.
- Process according to your ice cream maker’s instructions. When it is done but not frozen hard, fold in flaky sea salt to taste.