A couple of my friends smoke loose tobacco, and that is how I found my way for the first time to Leavitt & Peirce — a tobacco and toiletry specialist store right outside the university. My first thought is that this store is frozen in time; my grandfather would have recognized all the shaving tools they carry. The pipe section was exactly what I imagined colonial officers would have killed for one hundred years ago, and the whole store exudes an old-school feel.
My second thought was that the loose tobacco they carry smells wonderful. This is nothing like Marlboro or Camel. This stuff is really aromatic, and I got lost taking sniffs here and there from glass bell jars packed with different kinds. And that’s when it hit me — how could I cook with this? I tried googling recipes, without much luck. I mostly found posts of people who had tried, but failed. They complained about it being too bitter, or were worried about turning their food toxic.
My impulse was that tobacco would go well with cream. I imagined steeping tobacco leaves in cream, and carrying the flavor that way. I thought about making a tobacco-cream sauce to go with steak (I might go back to this in the future), tobacco ganache to act as a filling in chocolate truffles, or ice-cream.
“I am planning to make ice cream with tobacco, and wanted your help,” I said to the store attendant.
She was taken back, but jumped right back in. Apparently I was the first person ever to make that request, and she was genuinely excited to help me find something that would work.
“I am worried about the flavor being too strong, and I also want something that is not chemically treated — just tobacco.”
“We only carry natural tobacco, so you don’t need to worry about nasty chemicals,” she said. “How about you try this one?”
She guided me to a very mild, full-leaf pipe tobacco called “Natural Caucadis.” It was aromatic, but wasn’t as pungent as some of the other varieties. I bought an ounce, and walked out a happy-camper. As I was paying, the store attendant informed everyone within earshot what I was planning to do, and I got some excited looks as well as not-so-encouraging looks that wished I wouldn’t succeed.
My next step was to figure out the proportions. I remembered seeing something about tobacco in Heston Blumenthal’s “The Fat Duck,” but the recipe he offers calls for putting tobacco and coconut in a box next to each other, and let it infuse for a month. Not that helpful. I then turned to Grant Achatz’s “Alinea,” where I found a recipe for blackberries with tobacco cream. After adjusting for measurements, I figured that 4 grams would be enough to infuse the recipe below.
It was way too much. The ice cream picked up a spicy kick from the tobacco, and it was spicy in an over-powering way. The spicy also found its way to your throat, making it just not nice. I tried next with 2.5 grams, and this time it worked exactly like I hoped. The ice cream is initially sweet, and tastes like vanilla, but then it hits you. The tobacco takes about 5-8 seconds to come out, and leaves a slightly spicy and tingling feeling on the tongue, together with a bit of smokiness. The recipe yields a dense, creamy ice cream, which I think works better so that the tobacco flavor takes time to develop on the palate. I imagine that cutting back on the cream, and increasing the milk would lead to an ice cream where the flavor hits you faster.
The ice cream also picks up the nicotine, I think. I don’t smoke, but felt a bit of a rush after having a helping, and a smoker friend commented that he would normally feel like a smoke after a meal, but he didn’t. Don’t eat more than one serving at once!
Tobacco Ice cream
(recipe loosely based out of Sherry Yard’s ice cream recipe in “The Secrets of Baking”)
Makes 3 cups, or enough for 6-8 servings
357g heavy cream (1.5 cups)
120g milk (0.5 cups)
100g sugar (0.5 cups)
2.5g loose full-leaf tobacco (get a mild tobacco, and one that has no other chemicals applied to it. You could also break a cigar)
0.75 teaspoon vanilla paste (substitute equal amount of vanilla essence, or the seeds of half a vanilla bean).
Bring to a simmer the cream, milk, vanilla and tobacco over a medium flame. Turn off the heat, cover with a plastic film to prevent a top-layer from forming and steep for 10-15 minutes (depending on the strength of the tobacco you use, I would recommend that you start tasting it at the 8 minute mark to make sure it doesn’t get too strong). Strain with a fine-mesh strainer.
Whisk the yolks with the sugar and salt, making sure you do it quickly so the sugar doesn’t coagulate the yolks (i.e., don’t let the yolks sit on the sugar). Ladle half a cup of the cream mixture while whisking to the yolks to heat them up. Combine the whole thing. Pour it on a saucepan (non-stick works best, methinks), and heat it up over a small flame while constantly stirring, until the mixture reaches 170F (if you don’t have a thermometer, this is when it thickens up some, and if you run your finger down the spatula, it will leave a trail).
Pour the mixture through a strainer into a bowl set over an ice-bath. Stir it once in a while until the mixture cools down to 40F. Churn according to the instructions of your ice-cream machine.
You might have to play around with the tobacco you buy to get the exact proportions. I think 2 grams is a safe place to start, and you can move up or down from there.