With squinting eyes and a hacking cough I spat out my first gulp of Fernet-Branca. It’s a common reaction with Fernet virgins – so why didn’t the liquor salesman or the pastry chef warn me? My startled nostrils and taste buds were screaming Robitussin and Listerine. The dark brown concoction was highly medicinal with a strong dose of Pine-Sol - and nasty to put it kindly! After shelling out a pretty penny for the bottle, I realized that I should have done my homework and goggled it before I planned to use it with my small but precious harvest of figs! Just look at my blog header and you’ll understand my love of figs.
I considered trashing the bottle but local pastry chef Plinio Sandalio recently tweeted that “fernet branca makes miracles”. I’m not sure what planet he comes from (ok, I know he’s from Bolivia) but I believe he was thinking “miracles” with desserts. Upon further research I discovered that Fernet is a miracle potion for those with hangovers! It’s considered the national drink of Argentina and is wildly popular in San Francisco. I tried it with iced coke, a common mix which I found a little more palatable, but I was still thinking that I was not going to let this Fernet fool around with my beloved figs!
So who am I to question a professional chef? As you can see, I sacrificed a few figs to find out that this overzealous digestif does indeed have special powers…when used in small amounts. I found a marinade in Cooking Light magazine from San Francisco chef Luis Villavelazquez and marinated them for several days…just because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them just yet! Eventually I decided upon fig ice cream and made a rich custard base from a recipe by ice cream wiz David Lebovitz. Rich in egg yolks and cream, the classic custard base was the perfect complement to the brazen marinade.
The result was brilliant! We were swooning with delight as we scooped spoonfuls into our mouths. It was a beautiful marriage of velvety sweet figs, rich custard, and a gentle hint of herbs and spices. A miracle!
FYI: Fernet began as a medicinal potion compounded by Bernardino Branca, a chemist in Milan. It was taken to ease stomach ailments, hangovers and cramps. The list of ingredients is incredibly long – over 40 with some still remaining a secret. Based on grapes, it also contains a sizeable portion of saffron, myrrh, mint, cardamom, aloe, mushrooms, fermented beets, coca leaf, gentian, rhubarb, wormwood, zedoary, cinchona, bay leaves, absinthe, orange peel, Echinacea, quinine, ginseng, St. John's wort, sage, galangal, peppermint oil – and the list goes on! Today it is made by fifth generation Fratelli Branca. It is aged in oak barrels for 12 months and contains over 40% alcohol. The alcohol content in the marinade prevents the ice cream from hardening rock solid. Even after a few days it remained the perfect scooping texture.
A vintage label
Fernet Branca marinated fig ice cream
Fig marinade adapted from Cooking Light, August 2010
¼ cup water
¼ cup honey
1 tablespoon Fernet Branca (a little goes a long way!)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
pinch of salt
6 fresh figs, stems removed and then quartered
Combine water, honey, Fernet Branca, lemon juice and salt in small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Place figs in a glass container. Pour marinade over figs and cover. Refrigerate for up to 3 days - the longer the better! Keep chilled until ready to add to the Custard base.
Custard base adapted from David Lebovitz’s Vanilla Ice Cream recipe in The Perfect Scoop
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
A pinch of salt
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
Combine the milk, salt, sugar and heavy cream in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Scoop out ¼ cup milk and set aside.
Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl to combine. While whisking, add ¼ cup milk drop by drop to warm the eggs and prevent them from curdling. Pour the egg mixture into the milk in the saucepan and whisk continuously. Return saucepan to the heat and bring to a boil. Cook for 1 minute until it thickens slightly and then set aside to cool completely. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight until thoroughly chilled.
Freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions for 10 minutes. When ice cream starts to thicken, slowly add the marinade but hold back the figs. Continue to freeze in the ice cream maker (about 10 more minutes) and then add the figs. Freeze until well blended and set. Transfer to a container and freeze.