Finally success: Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream
If last week’s Berry Galette fail was the agony of defeat, Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream is the thrill of victory. I’ve tried to make an ice cream that tastes like Vietnamese iced coffee for years, and I’ve never gotten it right.
This ice cream, friends. It is bold and absolutely delicious.
Vietnamese iced coffee—a favorite summer treat
I absolutely adore Vietnamese food. The first thing I got to eat when I finally made it back into Boston after I was vaccinated was a bahn mi. The second thing was a Vietnamese iced coffee. Sadly my favorite place to get Vietnamese iced coffee did not survive the pandemic (and, yes, it was a different spot than the sandwich), but I still got my fix.
The combination of strong, robusta coffee, and sweetened condensed milk is one of life’s great pleasures. You can never really mix it up all the way, so there’s always a bit of gooey sweetness at the bottom that contrasts beautifully with the bitter coffee. I can’t wait to try it when I finally get to Vietnam.
Making Vietnamese coffee at home
I’ve made Vietnamese coffee at home for some time now. I used to get Café Du Monde coffee (a blend of robusta and arabica coffee blended with chicory, which reminded Vietnamese immigrants of the coffee from home) and brew it in a Moka pot. I never had it any other way, so I didn’t know what I was missing.
However, more recently, I purchased phin and started getting coffee beans (I like the TrueGrit blend, which is 100% robusta) from Nguyen Coffee Supply (not an affiliate link—I just like it). The phin, which looks like a little cup and saucer with a filter bottom, makes a huge difference.
Robusta vs arabica beans
Most of the coffee, especially popular third-wave coffee in the US is arabica coffee beans. Arabica beans make a smoother coffee and have less caffeine than their heartier robusta relatives. The caffeine part I first encountered in Belize. My first morning in Punta Gorda, I started my day with a mug of coffee, what I’d assumed would be the first of a few. My hair nearly stood up on end by the time I’d finished it. Stuff is s-t-r-o-n-g. And best had in small doses.
US coffee roasters have typically looked down upon robusta beans, but that’s changing. I’ve definitely found that the coffee I’ve been getting is balanced and tasty. The small amount brewed with the phin is plenty.
How to brew Vietnamese coffee
To brew, you start with a coffee cup, to which you’ve added a little sweetened condensed milk. Next, you place a little saucer-shaped filter on top of your cup, sit the phin on top and add your finely ground robusta coffee to the phin. Next, you take a little press and place it atop the coffee. Then you pour water into the phin and top with the cap. The coffee brews right into your cup, and the whole process takes about 5-7 minutes.
On hot days, I make it iced.
On really hot days, I make Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream.
No-churn ice cream experiments
It took a while for me to get this recipe right, and the saga starts with my foray into no-churn ice cream. Before I got an ice cream maker, I had hopped on that no-churn bandwagon. You know the one, where you whip cream with sweetened condensed milk and get something akin to an ice cream texture? I made it several times, and the only flavors I ever wound up liking were a salted chocolate flake and coffee.
Every other no-churn ice cream I made wound up being entirely too sweet, because of the sweetened condensed milk. Even with those flavors, the ice cream had an unpleasantness to it, due to the straight cream. I mean, if I really wanted ice cream, I guess it was OK? It wasn’t really OK.
Early attempts to make Vietnamese iced coffee ice cream
When I got an ice cream maker, one of the very first ice creams I tried to make was Vietnamese iced coffee ice cream. The flavor, bang-on perfect, but the texture disappointed. It never really hardened, and the texture was more like soft serve. It was the sweetened condensed milk.
The recipe was a custard-based ice cream (also known as French, which uses egg yolks), so I also tried the New York style ice cream. Again, tasty, but it also didn’t freeze quite right. I just don’t think sweetened condensed milk works in ice cream.
I gave up for a while, and then I discovered the perfect coffee ice cream
After the disappointments, I decided to focus on other ice creams (and sorbets). To that end, I picked up the Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz. In addition to a chocolate ice cream recipe that is divine, the Perfect Scoop contains the perfect recipe for coffee ice cream.
Lebovitz uses an unusual (to me, anyway) method for extracting the coffee flavor. He leaves the beans whole and steeps them in warmed milk and cream for an hour or so, before proceeding with the custard. The result is a richly flavored base. It might not look quite like coffee, though, as the color doesn’t transfer so much as the flavor.
What’s more, this ice cream freezes perfectly, and it has a glorious texture. Homemade ice cream does not always get either of these things right, but this recipe does. Really, it’s delicious, and you should make it.
Adapting that recipe
The Perfect Scoop has a recipe for Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream, but it’s a New York style (no eggs), and, alas, for me, I didn’t like this one. It uses half-and-half, which cut way down on that slickness that no-churn ice cream suffers from. However, it didn’t freeze that great for me.
So, instead I turned to his coffee ice cream recipe. I swapped out the regular strong coffee beans (presumably arabica) with Vietnamese coffee beans. I added cardamom pods (something I liked from one of my earlier attempts), as well as a bit of cinnamon stick, to bring out the flavors in the coffee. I kept the vanilla.
Something that occurred to me is that Vietnamese iced coffee is so good because the coffee is so strong and it contrasts with the sweetness of the condensed milk. Maybe a whipped cream would work?
Behold, Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream
Friends, this is tasty. The robusta beans make for a much bolder coffee ice cream, and the hints of spice bring out the flavors. It’s so good. I’ve kept the steeping time for the base the same, but I almost wonder if going a little longer would make this an even more intense treat.
The ice cream is sweet enough on its own, but I missed the fun of the sweetened condensed milk. To serve, I whipped some cream with a little bit of sweetened condensed milk and topped that with a little coffee powder. I recommend doing the same. Alternatively, you might put a little sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of your bowl.
Let me know if you make it!
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Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream
- Ice cream maker
- Fine mesh strainer
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- 1 ½ cups heavy cream, divided use ½ cup in the custard base and stir the base into the remaining cup
- 1 ½ cups robusta coffee beans, whole I use Nguyen TrueGrit
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- pinch kosher salt
- 6 cardamom pods
- 1 inch cinnamon stick
- 5 large egg yolks
- ¼ tsp vanilla
- ¼ tsp finely ground robusta coffee plus a little more to serve
- heavy cream, whipped with a bit of sweetened condensed milk, optional to serve
- Gently heat the milk, ½ cup of the cream, whole coffee beans, sugar, salt, cardamom pods, and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan (I use Le Creuset). When it is warm, turn off the heat, cover, and let steep for one hour (you might try a little longer for a more intense flavor)
- Once the mixture has steeped, rewarm it. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl large enough to hold the ingredients. Slowly pour the warm coffee mixture into the eggs (I use a soup ladle to do this) and whisk constantly (this is to avoid scrambling the eggs). Pour the mixture back into the saucepan
- Add the remaining cream to a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients and put a fine mesh strainer over it
- Over medium heat (take care that the mixture doesn't boil), use a heatproof spatula to stir the mixture, scraping the bottom of the pan. Stir constantly until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the spatula. You'll notice a change in texture
- Pour the mixture into the strainer. Press on the coffee beans to try and extract as much of the flavor out of them. Discard the beans. Mix in the vanilla and the finely ground robusta coffee, and stir until cool (stirring over an ice bath will help this to go faster)
- Chill the mixture for several hours (a day is better). Then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to containers and freeze for several hours before serving
- To serve, top with whipped cream sweetened with a bit of sweetened condensed milk and a bit of coffee powder