When the holidays rolled around during my childhood, the festive treat I looked forward to most was quite simple: a mug of hot cocoa with a candy cane in it. The candy cane would dangle into the warm, milk chocolaty liquid, slowly melting away. Some sips were more cocoa-intense, while others were gently infused with candy cane flavor, but the mug always seemed to empty sooner than I expected, leaving me anxious for the next evening’s drinkable dessert.
This ice cream is an ode to those candy cane hot cocoa-filled nights of my childhood, bringing that warm drink to a new, delightfully creamy and frozen level.
Unlike the usual candy cane ice creams floating around there at this time of year, this one is not overloaded with peppermint, which seems to happen when the ice cream base is peppermint flavored or when chopped bits of candy cane are evenly distributed throughout the ice cream.
Instead, my version uses a chocolate ice cream base with a candy cane ribbon running through that base. I found that this made me appreciate both the candy cane ribbon-filled bites and the all-chocolate spoonfuls all the more because of the contrast between two delicious flavors that stand well on their own but make a delicious pair.
To start, I had to make the chocolate ice cream base. I didn’t want it to be too fudgy and intensely chocolaty because that would overwhelm and compete with the candy cane flavor rather than complement it. But I used a dark, unsweetened cocoa powder because, when combined with the cream and half-and-half, it created a flavor that was both deeply chocolaty and milky – strong enough to hold its own against peppermint, but subdued enough that it would work together with the candy cane ribbon.
Please note that this chocolate base requires making a custard, which is a tad more time-consuming than the custardless Philadelphia method I’ve used previously. However, I didn’t find it as overwhelming in light of all the other baking going on during the holiday season, and the custard base plus a couple teaspoons of brandy did ensure that the chocolate base turned out exceedingly creamy.
But if you still find that intimidating, consider this: I actually made the custard base one morning, left it in the refrigerator to cool, completely forgot about it. Needless to say, I was extremely excited three days later when I realized that all I had to do was pour it into the already-frozen bowl of the ice cream machine and whip together the candy cane swirl while it churned.
As for the essential candy cane ribbon, I’d claim it’s as easy as pie, but I don’t think making pie is really that easy. (Rolling out dough scares the bejesus out of me, though I’ve learned over time that no one cares if the doughy crust turns out perfectly as long as it isn’t soggy – and even then, there’s some leeway – and is topped with lots of yummy stuff to distract your guests from a clearly patched-up crust.)
But trust me, making the candy cane syrup is super easy and totally worth it because it’s absolutely delicious. Hand me a spoon and I’ll show you. In fact, even if you refuse to make your own ice cream, this candy cane ribbon would make an excellent topping to store-bought chocolate ice cream. Or you could even let that ice cream soften for 10 minutes, then stir the ribbon in to make your own way-better-than-Sandra-Lee’s-nasty-creations semi-homemade version, and re-freeze for 30 minutes to harden it back up.
But back to how the candy cane swirl is made. Quite basically, I made a simple syrup by combining equal parts sugar and water in a pot, added one candy cane, and boiled on medium-high heat until the candy cane dissolved, and poured the syrup into a bowl to let it cool. See? No candy thermometer required!! Easy!! But I did have one in there just so, if you do choose to use a thermometer, you’d know that it reaches 230F at that point … and so my thermometer continued to feel loved because I really need it on my side when I make a ton of fleur de sel caramels, some fudge, and some English toffee this week.
Then, using the blunt end of my rolling pin, I smashed up three candy canes in a plastic bag, stirred those into the barely-still-warm candy cane syrup, and there you have it: homemade candy cane swirl, also known as candy cane syrup topping, also known as something you shouldn’t dip a spoon into lest you end up with plain chocolate ice cream.
Chocolate Ice Cream with Candy Cane Swirl
Makes 1 1/2 quarts
1 1/2 oz. (1/2 c.) dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
3 c. half-and-half
1 c. heavy cream
6 large egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp. cognac or brandy (vodka will also work)
Candy Cane Swirl (recipe below)
In medium pot, whisk cocoa powder and 1 c. half-and-half over medium heat until combined. Add remaining half-and half and cream, and bring to a very soft simmer. Remove from heat.
In separate bowl, whisk egg yolks and pinch of salt until yolks slightly lighten in color. Adding sugar gradually, whisk until combined. Very gradually, whisk approximately 1/3 of warm cream mixture (1 1/3 c.) into eggs to warm up the yolks without actually cooking them.
Add warmed yolk mixture to pot containing remaining cream mixture, reduce heat to medium, and stir constantly until custard thickens enough to barely coat the back of a spatula (mixture will be between 170F and 175F if you want to use a thermometer, but it’s not necessary; do not boil or mixture can curdle!). Remove from heat, and whisk in cognac.
Strain mixture into a bowl to remove any clumps from your ice cream base. Cool mixture by placing bowl over an ice bath or in the refrigerator, stirring periodically to let heat escape and bring temperature down evenly. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, and chill thoroughly in refrigerator for at least 4 hours or over night until temperature is 40F or below (I accidentally left it there for 3 days and it was still fine).
Remove from refrigerator, whisk vigorously if too thick to pour, and freeze in ice cream maker per manufacturer’s instructions (Note: mine required freezing the ice cream bowl for at least 24 hours in the freezer before churning), about 25 to 35 minutes until texture is approximately that of soft serve.
Stir in the Candy Cane Swirl, and freeze or another 3 to 4 hours in freezer to allow soft serve to harden into ice cream. Just like store-bought ice cream, you may want to let it thaw for 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature prior to serving so that it’s slightly softer and easier to scoop.
Candy Cane Swirl
Makes 3/4 c.
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
1 candy cane (14g), broken in half
3 candy canes, crushed in plastic bag (but leave some crunchy pieces!)
Boil sugar, water, and single candy cane in pot on medium-high until candy cane just finishes dissolving completely (or until candy thermometer reaches 230F). Remove from heat, and pour syrup into bowl to cool. Do ahead: syrup can be stored in refrigerated, airtight container for a couple weeks at this point, but don’t add chopped candy canes until ready to serve because they’ll melt into the syrup in the fridge.
Crush 3 remaining candy canes in a plastic bag (not in their wrappers, which break open and send candy cane bits flying everywhere!). Bring syrup to room temperature, and stir in crushed candy cane bits until combined. Pour atop chocolate ice cream or into the homemade ice cream recipe above.