To my darling Frenchman, on his 28th birthday,
As you read this, you are fresh off a fourteen hour flight from Argentina: The tail end of a double business trip that took you far away for the better part of two weeks. But now you are home, perhaps puttering to the coffee machine, or scolding me for not watering the succulents, or racing a line of kisses across my collarbone, razzing “Pepé Le Pew!” into my ear—-or any one of a thousand, small deeds that constitute our life together.
I am grateful for the nearly five years I have known you. I am grateful for what we have together, for what we’ve built, unhurriedly, imperfectly, one day at a time. We’ve fashioned a partnership with firm foundations, you and I, and that simple, essential, stupendous knowledge gives me courage every day, and makes all things seem possible.
I love you so very, very much, sweet chéri. I love you so much, in fact, that I have been lying to you for the better part of five months. Can you forgive me? (Since you are still quibbling about that itty-bitty non-event wherein I told you I was buying two small shelves from Ikea to “organize” our apartment, already filled to the brim with (my) (kitchen) things, but then actually went ahead and bought three, not-exactly-minuscule shelves and then asked you to construct them for me, this remains to be seen.)
You see the thing is, we are not going to Florida on Tuesday like I told you we were, not even slightly. (Although I hope the literature I sent you about the hotel in Key West, and the invented research on renting a sailboat for the afternoon, and my apologies over not coming up with a more creative way to spend your one real vacation of the year was at least half-way convincing.) Instead, we are going home, to your home. We are off to be surrounded by your family and friends, who have been in on this surprise for some time.
Keeping this secret from you has required every ounce of terrible acting skills I possess. (Seriously, it’s sort of a small, metal-worthy miracle that I didn’t accidentally drop it into conversation somewhere along the line.) There have been so many moments!
Do you remember when your Mom asked you, several Saturdays in a row, what we would be doing for your birthday and vacation? Mhm, by then she was already in on the plan! Do you remember when I suggested you email your friends in France, so that perhaps we could see them at Christmas; such a shame it had been so long? By then, they were already booking train tickets to Paris!
Instead of going to Florida, we will pass nine, languid days in Angoulins, walking barefoot on the terrace, eating grilled sardines, launching champagne corks into the pool, and swimming in the ocean. You’ll play tennis with your brother and violin with your father. You’ll laugh with your sister, be kissed by your mother, and serenaded bon anniversaire by your grandparents.
And after nine days, when you are tanned and relaxed and happy as a clam, we depart for Paris. Our hotel room looks out over the mess of slate and ivory roofs, cluttered with umber chimney pipes. Your friends wait at the bar on Boulevard Poissonnière: Alexandra and Antoine. Pierre, Alexandre, Jean-Charles, and Grégory. Jeremy, Clément, Anne Charlotte and Antoine. The weekend is yours and theirs, to do with what you like–to drink beer and catch up, to ramble around Paris or play tarot in the park, and then probably to drink some more beer.
I hope some, or all, of this birthday gift, surprises you. I hope you know unequivocally how much I care about you, and that this will be the best birthday celebration imaginable. So let me be the first one to wish you a most excellent, truly wonderful, wholly special 28th year, mon cœur. Here is to many more to come. Je t’aime à la folie!
PS. To sweeten the deal, I’ve made this birthday sundae just for you: a simple, perfumed sorbet of strawberries from the market, and a triple midnight dark chocolate ice cream. I topped the sundae with cherries and raspberries, the first of the summer.
When I asked the Frenchman to name his version of a favorite birthday cake, hopefully long enough ago not to be completely obvious, but probably not, he asked for dark chocolate ice cream, strawberry sorbet, and red fruits; so that is what he got!
If I do say so, this is a mighty fine sundae. Market strawberries make the sorbet sing: bombastic in color with bold, clean strawberry flavor. The triple midnight ice cream uses dark chocolate thrice; it’s the deepest, smoothest chocolate ice cream I’ve made yet.
A note about the xanthan gum: This is the first time I’ve experimented with xanthan gum, or any stabilizer for that matter, apart from egg yolks. (Believe it or not, I found some in the baking section of my grocery store.) While it is optional, I’ll say that it helped produce the smoothest batch of ice cream I’ve ever made at home. The texture was far closer to ice cream shop ice cream than anything I’ve spun previously.
A note about the chocolate: Chocolate is key to this recipe, so it’s important to use the very best you can find! I chose Mast Brothers Brooklyn Blend for the bar chocolate, and Valrhona for the cocoa powder.
Makes about 1 quart
Triple Midnight Chocolate Ice Cream
- 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
- a pinch of kosher salt
- 1.5 tablespoons good-quality cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum (optional)
- 1.5 cups good-quality cream
- 1.5 cups good-quality milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 egg yolks
- 5 ounces (140 grams) good-quality dark chocolate, divided
1. In the base of a medium pot, whisk together 1/4 cup of the sugar, the salt, the cocoa powder, and the xanthan gum. Pour in the cream, the milk, and the vanilla; whisk to blend. Turn the heat to medium, and warm the contents of the pot, whisking occasionally, until the milk froths up in the pan. Turn the heat off.
2. Meanwhile, in a separate small bowl, whisk the egg yolks vigorously with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar for about 30 seconds.
3. Very slowly begin incorporating the milk mixture into the egg yolks, whisking as you go; you don’t want the eggs to scramble. When the milk and eggs are completely combined, heat the custard base over medium-low heat, stirring, until the custard coats the back of your spoon, or until the it reaches 165F on a candy thermometer. Run the base through a fine mesh sieve to remove any clumps or egg stringies.
4. Break 2.5 ounces (or 1 bar) of the dark chocolate into pieces. Set the broken chocolate in a metal bowl, and place the bowl over a simmering water bath; let the chocolate melt. When the chocolate is just melted, take the bowl off the heat. Slowly begin incorporating the custard base. (As you go, you’ll be able to increase the pace.) If the base doesn’t look super smooth, run it through a sieve again.
5. Chill the base: you can do this with an ice bath, or simply by moving the custard to the fridge for at least 4 hours or overnight. When the base is very cold, spin it in an ice cream machine, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
6. Meanwhile, chip the remaining chocolate using a vegetable peeler. In the last minute of spinning, introduce the chipped chocolate into the ice cream.
7. Try not to devour the ice cream right out of the maker! Move the ice cream into a container, and then into the freezer for a few hours, to harden.
Now is the time for strawberries. I literally cannot stop myself from buying them at the market, because they smell and taste so damn good. Since I continue to come home with far too many, here are a few uses I’ve put them to lately: strawberry frozen yogurt, strawberry cake, and strawberry jam. This sorbet is also very tasty; refreshing, and appropriate for vegan and vegetarian readers.
A note about credit: Recipe adapted from David Lebovitz’s book, The Perfect Scoop.
A note about the Pineau: I used Pineau because we had some in the house, and because I thought it neatly symbolized where the Frenchman is from, and where we are going for his birthday. Mr. Lebovitz uses kirsch instead; I think any fruit brandy would suffice. You could also omit the alcohol, but then your sorbet will likely freeze more solidly.
Makes about 1.5 pints
Market Strawberry Sorbet
- 1 pound (450 grams) fresh strawberries
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon Pineau
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- a pinch of kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon xanthan gum (optional)
1. Wash and hull the strawberries. Slice them lengthwise into a large bowl, and then add the sugar and the Pineau; stir well to coat the strawberries. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and then let the strawberries hang out for about 1 hour, until they get juicy.
2. Move the strawberries to a blender or food processor, along with the lemon juice, the salt, and the xanthan gum (if you’re using it) and whiz them up until well pureed. At this point, you could run the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, to remove the seeds, but I sort of prefer to keep them, even if they do sometimes get stuck in my teeth.
3. Move the sorbet base to the fridge for a few hours, until it’s super cold. Then, spin the sorbet in an ice cream machine, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
You can serve the sorbet soft right out of the machine, or move it to the freezer until it’s properly frozen. I have a feeling this sorbet would also make a welcome addition to a champagne cocktail (cover your ears, darling Frenchman!), or scooped into a punch.
Since he requested “red fruits”, and since cherries and tiny raspberries just appeared at the market, that’s the route I went. However, feel free to top this sundae with any fruit you have available, and change it up as the summer progresses.