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Shaking it up

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Outside my window is a guy with a leaf blower. How annoying! He's distracting me from the most relaxing sound of summer: a high-powered blender noisily mixing up milkshakes on my counter.

The blender sure has been busy, because we've had a lot of 80-degree weather in Seattle lately and I've been making a variety of milkshakes. I wanted to get the recipe right, just for you, and if that means drinking a couple of milkshakes per day, so be it.


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I've been making milkshakes, especially malted ones, for years, but I didn't glimpse their full potential until recently. First, I experienced the perfect milkshake at Lunchbox Laboratory in Seattle, where chef Scott Simpson serves super-creamy shakes in Pyrex beakers. One of Simpson's best and most imaginative shakes is the Boston Cream, which has custard and homemade fudge blended into it.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Milkshakes make the day."]There's no secret to making the perfect milkshake, Simpson says: "Good ingredients and good care. That’s all it takes. And imagination." I kept making milkshakes at home, following Simpson's mantra, but now their texture and flavor seemed limp and insipid. 

Then along came Adam Ried and his book Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes. His strawberry milkshake first caught my eye. Rather than a simple and bland mixture of strawberry ice cream and milk, Ried mixes strawberry ice cream, strawberry sorbet, strawberry jam, milk, and a touch of lemon juice. This is strawberry on strawberry. It's milkshake nirvana.

The sorbet is key: it appears in dozens of Ried's shakes. "Let me sing the praises of sorbet," he writes, "which I consider to be the key tool in our milkshake revitalization program." He explains that sorbets are less sweet and more intensely flavored than the syrups typically used to flavor milkshakes.

I agree, but I think there's more to it than that. I love ice cream — who doesn't? — but milk and cream tend to blunt flavors. A nicer way of putting it is that fat rounds out flavor, and you want your milkshake rounded out but not rounded off. Sorbet is a way of taking ice cream out of a shake (not all the ice cream, of course) and replacing it with something equally cold and full-flavored but dairy-free. Ried frequently uses half ice cream and half sorbet, and the results would please any rich, thick milkshake lover. (Lover of thick, rich milkshakes, I mean.)

And wow, does Ried like a thick milkshake. Typically, he uses just half a cup of milk for 12 scoops of ice cream or sorbet. "They require some encouragement on the part of the spatula," he admitted by email. I prefer about twice as much milk. It doesn't matter whether you use whole milk or low-fat milk; you really can't taste the difference in the end product.

I learned a few other principles over the course of establishing my own milkshake laboratory:

# The best ice creams for eating aren't necessarily the best for milkshakes. Green and Black's Organic chocolate ice cream, which I find has an icy, unpleasant texture when eaten straight, makes the very best chocolate milkshake or malt, especially in combination with chocolate sorbet. In general, though, my favorite ice cream to use as the base of a milkshake is the kind one step up from supermarket brand. Think Dreyer's, Edy's, or Breyer's. The flavor is good, the price is reasonable, and the ice cream doesn't need to soften as long because it has more air in it than premium brands.
# Yes, you should soften your ice cream before blending it into a shake, especially if you have a good zero-degree freezer. Scoop out the ice cream and wait until it gets "melty around the edges," as Ried puts it. When I complained to him that his shakes were too thick, he said, "Softening the ice cream more would also help it blend and pour smoothly. If you have been softening it for 10 or 12 minutes, try 18 or even 20." I had been softening it for about six minutes, since that's as long as I could wait for a milkshake.
# When making a malted milkshake, use a lot of malt powder. About 2 tablespoons per serving is good. (If you can't find malted-milk powder in the baking or bulk sections of your local supermarket, try the coffee section, where the Carnation brand is often stocked.)
# When making a chocolate milkshake, Ried recommends using half vanilla ice cream and half chocolate sorbet, but I'm a chocoholic, so I prefer Ried's variation of half chocolate ice cream and half chocolate sorbet, with a touch of vanilla extract.
# When making a coffee milkshake, add a shot (or multiple shots) of espresso. This is so much better than a coffee milkshake made with coffee ice cream alone, it should be required by law. Furthermore, a mocha shake made with coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate sorbet is, well, just go make it.
# Weird milkshakes (what Ried calls his "whackball flavors") are great. I haven't made the prune-Armagnac or maple-bacon yet, but I swear by the vanilla-honey-sesame, which is made with Asian toasted sesame oil.

Finally, a word about blenders. I made milkshake after milkshake using my immersion (stick) blender, which worked fine for two servings, containing about 12 ounces of ice cream or sorbet. Then I started to wonder about those hardcore blenders like the Vita-Mix, which retails for $500. Simpson uses one for his milkshakes. I convinced a friend to loan me hers in exchange for free shakes.

If you haven't seen the Vita-Mix, it looks like a blender crossed with a monster truck. The massive base houses a three-horsepower engine, which is equivalent to the engine in a small lawnmower. I figured I'd never have to wait for ice cream to soften again: I could put rock-hard ice cream into the Vita-Mix and demolish it in seconds.

Sadly, it didn't work. The ice cream got stuck in the bottom of the jar, the same way it does in a regular wimpy blender. But the Vita-Mix is great for making milkshakes for a crowd. Otherwise, a regular blender or stick blender works fine.

The Vita-Mix is still sitting in my dining room, daring me to blend things. It's making me a little nervous. I will calm my nerves with a milkshake.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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