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As you indulge in your final ice cream of this short-lived summer, you should take a moment to thank the ancient Persians for discovering the magic bond between sweetened milk and ice that led to the invention of your favorite treat. There’s one ingredient in that original ice cream, however, that’s probably missing from your bowl—salep, a precious powder from orchid bulbs that has been cultivated in the Eastern Mediterranean for centuries. It gives ice cream a uniquely stretchy texture.
A few years ago, I had the chance to sample different variations of salep-based ice cream, which still uses its original recipe and technique, while driving across Turkey. It’s called dondurma in Turkey and booza in Syria, but you will also find it simply called Arabic or Turkish ice cream.
If the names don’t ring a bell, you may recognize the stretchy treat from recent viral videos of it being served, where tourists are ruthlessly pranked by ice cream men dressed in Ottoman clothing. Or you may have caught the Bon Appétit feature on a popular brand of Turkish ice cream sold in stores. It's truly the summer of ancient ice cream.
Upon returning to the States from Turkey, however, I couldn't find real dondurma anywhere. Turkish restaurants rarely had it on the menu, and when they did, it was never quite the authentic ice cream I was accustomed to. Curious about the process and desperate for more, I decided to recreate the ice cream in my own kitchen.
Dondurma is rather different from other ice creams around the world in terms of consistency and flavor. Dondurma gains its chewy texture from the inclusion of salep, while its light cedar taste comes from mastic resin. Mastic, nicknamed the "tears of Chios," is a brittle and translucent resin obtained from mastic trees that are native to the Greek island of Chios. Its flavor is bitter at first, but after some chewing or grinding, it releases a refreshing piney taste.
Producing dondurma is also a labor of love, as Harold McGee explains in the New York Times. “The dondurma-maker pounds and stretches the ice cream for 20 minutes to organize the network into a dense, elastic mass, just as a breadmaker kneads dough to develop its gluten,” he writes. “Portions of the firm, chewy ice cream are then cut with a knife.”
Due to its limited production, pure salep powder is very rare in the States, even at specialty grocery stores. Most of those stores might sell salep drink mix, but that’s not a good substitute for the actual powder. I ordered both the salep and mastic resin on Amazon, at $20 each, including shipping from Greece. Unfortunately, Turkey currently forbids the export of salep, so Greece is the most reliable source.
As a result of the rarity of the ingredients, some Turkish ice cream makers outside of Turkey substitute salep with corn starch to mimic the thickened texture. You can substitute corn starch at home, but we recommend using salep if possible.
To create my own dondurma at home, I began with a standard recipe and experimented with added ingredients to reach my preferred flavor and texture.
First, because of its resin texture, it’s best to freeze the mastic for about 15 minutes before use (or even store in the freezer). In a bowl, slowly crush the frozen resin into tiny pieces. Add the sugar and vanilla powder to the bowl.
Heat the milk in a pot over medium heat, then gradually add the salep mixture. Stir the pot carefully to make sure no lumps are left. Keep stirring until it reaches pudding consistency. Then, turn the heat to low and cook for another 30 to 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the pot cool.
If you’re using an ice cream maker, pour the mixture into the freezer bowl and start churning until the consistency is stretchy. If using the traditional hand-mixing method, transfer the mixture into a clean bowl and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Take the bowl out of the freezer and use a fork to whisk the mixture for two to three minutes. Scrape any ice crystals that form on the bowl. Place back in the freezer. Repeat this step another four to five times until you notice the ice cream starts to get stretchy.
After mixing is complete for either method, freeze the mixture for five hours. Take it out of the freezer to let it sit another 10 minutes and then scoop out the ice cream into serving bowls. Sprinkle the ice cream with rose water and chopped pistachio nuts.
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