Just for a moment, close your eyes and imagine a summer night, sitting around a campfire, telling stories, toasting marshmallows, and eating s’mores. Remember those hot, gooey, graham-cracker and chocolate-bar summer desserts? Okay, you can open your eyes. Did anyone bring napkins?
I confess to a lifelong devotion to s’mores, so as a restaurant pastry chef, I’ve tried a number of ways to bring this summer-camp confection into the dining room. This year, I’m merging another childhood sweetheart—ice cream sandwiches— with s’mores to make a milk chocolate ice cream dessert with homemade marshmallow and graham crackers, a kind of campfire-meets-baked- Alaska thing. This is an ice cream sandwich that’s equally terrific served after a backyard barbecue or in a fine dining room.
Start a day or two before serving
While this dessert isn’t difficult to make, it does require time to make the different components: ice cream, graham crackers, and marshmallow topping. The good news is that you can make the components and assemble most of the sandwich ahead of time. When you’re ready to serve, all you have to do is broil the sandwiches. Here’s a plan:
Cook the custard for the ice cream two days before you’d like to serve the sandwiches. To develop the flavor, let the custard sit in the refrigerator for several hours or, ideally, overnight, and then freeze it in your machine the next day.
Make the graham crackers a day ahead, while the ice cream freezes. The crackers will keep in an airtight container for several days if you want to make them before that.
Make the marshmallow topping the day you’re serving the sandwiches. You’ll need 30 minutes to an hour to firm up the topping in the freezer before cutting portions. You can also make and pipe the marshmallow several hours in advance. The sandwiches will taste best on the day they’re made, but leftovers will keep in the freezer for a few days. Keep the graham crackers separate so they don’t get soggy.
Beg or borrow an ice-cream maker
You won’t need a lot of fancy equipment to make this dessert; just make sure you have an electric mixer and an ice-cream maker. Any hand-crank or electric icecream maker with at least a 1-quart capacity will do. If you don’t have an icecream maker, borrow one from a friend.
I do recommend getting hold of an angel food cake cutter (this looks like a large, dangerous comb), which will give your graham crackers a professional look. (These cutters are available at Cooking.com.) You’ll also need a 12x16-inch baking sheet for the graham crackers. At the restaurant, I use the backside of an aluminum half-sheet pan, but the large air-insulated baking sheets found in kitchen stores (for $15 to $20) work well.
Follow these tips for smooth ice cream and crisp crackers
The recipes for the ice cream, graham crackers, and marshmallow topping aren’t difficult, but here are a few tips to help you get the best results. The first thing you’ll make is the custard for the ice cream.
• Buy the best chocolate for homemade ice cream. I’ve also added cocoa powder because I like the bitter edge it lends to the sweet milk chocolate.
• Incorporate the cocoa powder into cold milk and cream. Cocoa powder dissolves better in cold liquids, and then it has a chance to cook a little with the custard, which mellows its bitterness.
• Use a little elbow grease when whisking the egg yolks and sugar for the custard. Take the time (three or four minutes) to really whisk the eggs and sugar vigorously. You’ll know it has the right consistency when the eggs thicken, lighten in color, and fall off the whisk in “ribbons.”
• Combine the milk and egg mixtures by first tempering the eggs with a small amount of hot liquid. Finish cooking the custard over low heat, stirring frequently, and take it off the heat when it’s just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
• Mix the graham-cracker dough just until combined. Someone once asked me how I make such tasty graham crackers: “Do you start with graham-cracker crumbs?” “Yes, and glue,” I responded. Actually, it’s much easier than that. The graham-cracker dough is a simple cookie batter. To make a tender cracker with whole-wheat flavor, I use a portion of whole-wheat pastry flour (available in health-food stores), and I add honey, which helps keep the crackers tender and improves their keeping quality. I’m also careful not to overmix the dough, which I finish pressing together with my hands.
• Roll out the dough very thin. You’ll have to keep picking up pieces of the dough and patching them to fill out the rectangle. If the parchment wrinkles a lot while you’re rolling, sprinkle a very small amount of flour between the paper and the dough. But don’t go crazy: too much added flour will toughen the crackers.
• Combine gelatin and cooked meringue to make a kind of marshmallow fluff. I have to be honest and tell you that we’re not technically making marshmallow. A proper marshmallow is rather stiff and difficult to eat with a fork; on the other hand, meringue— the fluffy finish on a baked Alaska— lacks any real marshmallow texture at all. As a compromise, you’ll make a sort of hybrid, something along the lines of Marshmallow Fluff. I know what you’re thinking, but trust me on this one. You’ll need a clean candy thermometer and a very clean mixing bowl and whisk to make the topping. Any oily residue in the bowl or on the whisk could prevent the egg whites from whipping to their full capacity.
Finish the sandwiches under the broiler
When you’re ready to serve your ice cream sandwiches, you can brown the tops and warm the marshmallow under a hot broiler. You’ll be surprised at how warm and gooey the marshmallow can get without melting the ice cream. Or, if you happen to own a blowtorch—many restaurant pastry chefs use these with abandon—you can brown the topping with that, though the blowtorch browns so quickly that the marshmallow doesn’t have time to warm up much.
I like to serve the sandwich on a big plate with a second graham cracker and sometimes a spoonful of chocolate sauce. To really impress your friends and recreate campfire memories right at the dinner table, leave room on the plate for one other thing: a little pile of cinnamon sticks broken into small pieces. Using your blowtorch or a long match, set the cinnamon-stick “logs” on fire. They’ll flare up for a minute or two, subside into cozy embers, and give off a little cinnamon-scented smoke, all the while looking convincingly like a miniature campfire.