Aug 19, 2014

This Summer Clove

The end of summer has a piercing quality to it—a nip in the air in the morning, a pang of wistfulness for all the long days and porch evenings now dwindling quickly down a spiral staircase towards New England's base season: winter.

I could say I suffer from this malaise, but I actually favor autumn and winter to summer here in Boston, and besides, most spices are best featured in the warming foods popular to these seasons.


I have always felt sorry for the spices that get attached to cliché winter foods, especially cloves. Enough with spiced bundt cakes and roasted squash and cooked apples—it's still summer, for another 36 days! And I want ice cream.

Cloves are flower buds. They are picked before they blossom, when green or even red, and then dried to the familiar deep chocolate brown. 

During a visit to an organic spice garden outside Kandy, Sri Lanka this past March I had the chance to see cloves in their live state, seen here on a branch plucked from a tree looking like a single bright green firework. In this raw state, each flower bud (clove) has a plump, glossy, sculptural quality that bears a vague resemblance to its dehydrated self. Close up, they look like a bird claw clutching a small green pea. 

I've been meditating on this version of the clove—the raw clove—in order to understand where it comes from, and how different it is from the dried, familiar version.

Suddenly I don't want to know what wars were fought over it, or who piled it onto what ships at the expense of someone's suffering. I don't want to know who's tomb it was found in, who's teeth were graced by it, or what famous recipes were devised with it in an ancient Indonesian kitchen. 

I just want to know it as a plant, Syzygium aromaticum, but even naming it seems improper, for it keeps it under our human control.  An evergreen tree, home to the tropics, sister to the rose apple, a crunchy delicious fruit not related to apples. 

Ah fragrant clove, you are just a flower waiting to blossom but plucked before you could bloom, beholden to an animal you barely know.

I admit that the flavor of clove reminds me of tooth pain. This flavor comes from eugenol, an aromatic compound that is also known to have pain-killing properties. It is also present in certain types of basil, vanilla, bay leaves and even celery. It's powerful stuff, and will indeed numb your nerves, which is why it's often used for toothache, or gum pain; in milder versions it's used to simply warm the body, such as in flavoring wintery mulled wine or hot toddies. 

But it's time to separate the clove from both dentistry and winter food and cocktails. In celebrating the last month or so of summer, I want to not only honor the local bounty produced in the short season here in Massachusetts, but also search for ways to develop and deepen these flavors through spice. 

During a walk one recent afternoon I discovered a patch of blackberries so ripe they seemed to drip from their thorny stems. Picking them, I drew blood, but tasting them I got a fruity, tart flavor with a hint of spice. On my way home I decided there was only one thing to do, pair the fruit with an atypical summer flavor: clove.

So here's a recipe to honor the clove's hot, steamy origin by enveloping it in tasty, cold cream studded with summery blackberries. 

And if you're not in a patient mood to go about making and freezing ice-cream, try just macerating some berries with sugar and ground clove and topping your plain yogurt or vanilla ice-cream.

Blackberry-Clove Ice Cream


1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp whole cloves
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups blackberries
pinch of ground clove (optional)

Start by slowly heating the heavy cream and whole cloves in a small saucepan. Bring to a slight simmer then turn off the heat and set aside so the cloves can steep in the cream.

In another saucepan, slowly heat the milk and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a pan, stirring to let the sugar dissolve. Heat for about 3 minutes and then remove from the heat. 

Beat the remaining sugar into the yolks and then slowly add a 1/2 cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture. Then add this mixture slowly back into the other half of milk and heat slowly, stirring constantly until thick and the mixture coats the back of a spoon. This should take about 3-5 minutes.

Cool completely (an ice bath works well), then strain the heavy cream to remove the whole cloves and stir into the custard. 

Crush the blackberries and push through a sieve to remove the seeds, then add this crushed juice to the custard and freeze in an ice-cream maker. Stir in a pinch of clove at the end if you can't taste enough delicious clove flavor. 

adapted from Mark Bittman's recipe for vanilla ice cream in How to Cook Everything, 2008

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