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Cool and Mighty Mint: Summer in an Ice Cream

I have always loved mint ice cream. When I was very young, my mother would take my sister and me to the local Baskin-Robbins on a hot afternoon, usually after a visit to the pool. For years, I asked for mint chip ice cream in a sugar cone.

I can still remember the heat rising off the parking-lot asphalt, the peeling sunburn on my shoulders, the scent of chlorine -- and that first blast of mint, rising up magically through the roof of my mouth and turning my overheated brain into a cool stone temple of empty, blissed-out space.

If they were out of mint chip, I would settle, resentfully, for plain chocolate chip, though I considered it a poor, bleached-out substitute for the real thing.

To me, the pastel green of mint chip ice cream was a visual guarantee of speedy transport from the terrestrial heat. That the color was most likely FD & C Green No. 3 and the chips were little more than specks bothered me not at all.

As the years passed, I strayed from mint chip, following the times with fitful allegiances to Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream and Ben and Jerry's Heath Bar Crunch and Cherry Garcia.

Eventually I started making my own, reveling in the strange new world of what are called non-ultra-pasteurized heavy creams. The rich, silken cream of Jersey cows makes a fine chocolate chip when combined with hand-chopped European bittersweet chocolate -- not a faint replica of my childhood mint chip, but rather a worthy treat on its own.

Right around then, I planted my herb garden, which soon bristled with mint, its probing and promiscuous root systems strangling tender annuals and passing unimpeded through teeming ant colonies under the secrecy of the flagstones.

I learned two things quickly: One, that mint's essential oil, menthol, is one of nature's most elegant boons, delivering a sensation of coolness to our bodies' heat sensors just at the peak of summer's heat. Two, that I could make a virtue out of mint's vicious abundance by steeping plentiful handfuls in my ice cream's custard base. I could capture the cooling menthol effect -- and then double it in the freezer, in one fell scoop.

Still, something was missing: My mint chip remained as pale as a paper napkin. I wondered: Could you even make a green mint ice cream without Green No. 3?

I read what I could about the delicate chemical structure of chlorophyll and how to preserve its vivid green color. I rejected the idea of boiling mint in copper (too toxic), or alkalizing the custard (but that would entail using baking soda and I just couldn't bear the thought).

Since I didn't want to destroy the color with too much cooking, I tried Philadelphia-style, or no-cook ice creams, pulverizing the raw mint in milk or cream. The milk instantly turned brown. The cream turned to olive-colored butter. My mint supply, incredibly, was dwindling, and my patience was long gone.

Finally, I tried blanching the mint, then grinding it in milk, and was rewarded with a faint chlorotic cast. It was not the color of summer. It was the color of winter -- a winter spent indoors, say, under fluorescent lights staring at a computer monitor. I gave up and returned to the pale but powerful mint chip I'd learned to make.

My mint chip tasted green. I had only to close my eyes to return to the Baskin-Robbins parking lot, to an age when seeing was believing and belief's magic extended even to Green No. 3.

What we take on faith as adults -- low-interest mortgages, peaches in December, rush-hour traffic -- differs sharply from our childhood truths.

Yet such is the transporting nature of ice cream, whose sweet and chilly power defies age and season. For a moment, we and our grownup disbelief, however tangled at the root, can be suspended in time and mentholated space -- cool, green and forever young.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, NPR.org and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.
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