Chocolate vs. Chocolate: The Ultimate Showdown

From Left: Chocolate Gelato Candidates 1, 2 and 3

Somebody posed a question recently on a European travel forum that asked, "why do people talk about ‘gelato’ as if it were something other than just the Italian word for ice cream?". I pitied the poor person who asked this question, not only for obviously never having had the life-changing experience of eating a real gelato, but mostly for the frenzied wrath this question incurred among the more savvy members of the gelato-eating public. They took no mercy, filling up obscenely large amounts of comment space and veering dangerously near fanaticism in their attempts to ‘educate’ the question-poser that this is no mere linguistic distinction. The thing is that despite my distaste for most things fanatical, I found myself sympathizing more with the gelato fanatics than with the poor question-poser. Could this be a sign that I verge on some pretty extreme gelato feelings myself? I mean, of course I like ice cream. But when push comes to shove in the ice-cream vs. gelato debate, no amount of pushing, shoving or bribery can prevent me from firmly parking my allegiance on the side of the latter.

However, it is a legitimate question to ask what the difference is, because ice cream and gelato in my opinion share approximately the same latitude of similarity as leberwurst and foie gras. Both are good, but it’s obvious which one you’d be smearing on your toast if given the choice. As a matter of fact, I once spent four weeks in Italy trying to pin down the elusive qualities that set true gelato in a class by itself. It required extensive and back-breaking research, let me tell you, but the conclusions I came to were thankfully more than worth the effort. Here’s what I discovered. First, gelato is served slightly warmer than ice cream, which allows it to keep its creamy, supple texture and causes it to take less time to melt and release its perfumes on the tongue. Second, gelato flavors are often mind-blowingly intense thanks to to a lower fat content – fat by nature coating the tastebuds and dulling perception of flavor – a happy fact I can confirm as I was able to plough my way through remarkable quantities of the stuff without batting an eyelid (or loosening my belt… er, too much). Third, I noticed that when gelato melts, it doesn’t flow in sticky little rivulets out of the cone and all over your hand; instead it keeps its shape remarkably well, even under the scorching heat of the midday Italian sun.

And what does all this mean for the home gelato craver? Well, these observations led me to the conclusion that a good homemade gelato needs to be given the following treatment if there is any hope of approximating the original: a) it should preferably be kept in a home freezer that has had the temperature raised ever so slightly so that it doesn’t over-harden; b)it must contain only milk, no cream; c) it should contain large amounts of flavoring agents, preferably from fresh, ripe natural sources; and d) it should be comparatively thick in its unfrozen state (think pudding), thus insuring a slow and even melt. Ideally we would also have a high-end gelato machine in the equation, which through its expert coddling would freeze our base into a dense, silky and ice-free treat. I realize this may be a bit much to ask for in most households (including my own), and the turning-up the freezer part may be unrealistic as well (after all, heaven knows what balmy temperatures will do to that haunch of venison you’ve been saving for a rainy day). That is why I have tested the following gelato recipes without the use of any machine whatsoever and have frozen them in nothing but my tiny fridge-internal freezer compartment (which as a matter of fact has no separate temperature control, and god knows I wouldn’t want my milk going sour, even for the sake of gelato).

The first problem confronting the prospective home gelato-maker, after she has accepted the above truths and techniques, is what flavor to make. Again, Italian gelato-veterans know that the typical choice on offer even in a modest gelateria can induce paralyzing internal debates, and the gelato giants (think Vivoli in Florence) can positively make you collapse from decision neurosis. Everyone agrees, however, that there are a few standards which must be done well, and which can be used to test the quality of any new place you encounter. In Italy the flavors I always chose to test new establishments’ credentials were pistachio (which should not be overly green AND should taste like real pistachios), lemon (should be equal parts tart, sweet and fresh), and of course my own Achilles’ heel: chocolate. Chocolate should be first and foremost deeply, darkly and dangerously chocolaty, it must not be overly sweet but at the same time not overly bitter, and it should be every bit as silky, creamy and nuanced on the tongue as an artisan chocolate truffle, but much more refreshing. Needless to say, it’s a hard flavor to master.

Which is why, in order to bring to you the best possible recipe for making it, I decided to first conduct a taste test. I collected three chocolate gelato recipes from reputable sources, but not before deciding that all must conform to two criteria: namely, that they had to use only milk, no cream, and also that they must use both chocolate and cocoa powder for the most intense and complex chocolate flavor possible. The rest of the ingredients and proportions were free to vary, though as you can see all three recipes rely upon a more-or-less identical basic formula. Apparently it is within the small differences of ingredient or technique that good gelato is separated from great gelato, so here is where I paid the most attention to detail. As you can see below, one recipe used a higher proportion of bittersweet chocolate to cocoa, another used the reverse, and the third used maximum amounts of both. Two of the recipes asked me to caramelize a small portion of the sugar to give the flavor more depth. Although I had restricted myself to using only milk, in one of the recipes I substituted evaporated milk for a portion of the normal milk, wondering what effect this would have on overall flavor and creaminess. The two other things I did to insure maximum flavor were adding a pinch of salt to all three recipes, because I believe this brings out the flavor of most ice creams, and chilling the bases overnight in the refrigerator before freezing to ‘ripen’ the flavors.

And the results, you ask? The results were astounding. All three recipes were so dense and creamy they put Haagen Dazs to shame. They were so chocolaty I put off publishing this post until the leftovers were gone for fear that I would be inundated with friends demanding samples. And they were so delicious I had to include the recipes for all three. But naturally, there was also a winner.

Do try your hand at making one of these. They’re easier to whip up than you’d imagine, and the results will satisfy even the most hardened gelatoholic. Just don’t plan to do it when other people are around. After all, when you’re dealing with gelato this good, a little selfishness is usually justified.

The Taste-Off
The tast
: yours truly (aka Melissa) and trusty sidekick (aka Manuel) (I know what you’re thinking, but I couldn’t exactly hide it all from him, now could I?)
The method: Three containers, one spoon, no previous chocolate in system.

Gelato 1 (pictured above on left)
The grainiest (and hardest-freezing) of the three, due to having the highest percentage of cocoa butter which becomes grainy and hard when frozen (yet another thing learned from Alice). The chocolate flavor from the bittersweet bar was good, but not as deep and complex as the others which contained higher percentages of cocoa. Rather resembled ice cream than gelato, but nice in its own way for being not overpoweringly chocolaty. Very difficult to scoop on day 2, however.
Melissa: 6/10
Manuel: 5/10

Gelato 2 (pictured above in center) *WINNER*
Wow. This used a higher proportion of cocoa to chocolate, resulting in a super dense silky texture that remained even after extended freezing (cocoa keeps ice cream soft, didn’t you know?). The flavor was very deep and well-rounded, without the gritty/powdery aftertaste present in number 3. The evaporated milk, if I do say so, was a brilliant addition, adding a subtle extra-milky creaminess that complemented the chocolate perfectly; it also added a slightly caramely undertone without having to go through the hassle of actually caramelizing the sugar. Brought back memories of sweaty afternoons lounging in piazzas.
Melissa: 9.5/10
Manuel: 9/10

Gelato 3 (pictured above on right)
This had by far the strongest chocolate flavor of all, not surprising considering it contained maximum amounts of both types of chocolate to minimum amounts of milk. Although when the first taste of this hit my mouth I thought it would be the winner, two things bothered me by the time it slid down my throat: 1) it had a gritty/powdery aftertaste; 2) it was almost TOO chocolaty, if that’s possible. It actually didn’t taste like ice cream/gelato, but rather like frozen ganache (and has the consistency to match). A couple of spoonfuls of this and I was ready to throw in the towel. If you’re looking for the knock-down drag-out ultimate in chocoalte, look no further, though apparently, for me at least, there indeed can be ‘too much of a good thing’.
Melissa: 7/10
Manuel: 8/10

The Recipes
Disclaimer: I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will anyway – your chocolate gelato will really truly only be as good as the chocolate/cocoa you put into it. Since there’s not a lot else in these recipes that can make up for mediocre chocolate taste, splurge on the best you can get your hands on – it’s worth the investment, and your tastebuds will thank you. (I used Lindt 70% bittersweet chocolate and Poulain 1848 cocoa.)
Additional notes: I intended to do my immersion-blender trick of blending everything up after freezing for a few hours to lessen ice-crystal formation, but it was completely unnecessary: the cocoa in these keeps the mixture wonderfully supple and apart from a quick stir I just left them alone until we were ready to eat.

Chocolate Gelato No. 1

Yield: about 3 cups.

4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups whole milk
3.5 oz bittersweet chocolate
7 tablespoons cocoa powder (Dutch-process or regular, it’s your choice)
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch salt

Beat the egg yolks with a whisk. Gradually add the 3/4 cup sugar and pinch salt. In saucepan, bring milk to a boil, remove from heat. When slightly cooled, very slowly add to the egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly and quickly, being careful not to curdle the eggs. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and stir until smooth and silky. Pour into custard mixture and blend. Add cocoa powder and mix well.
Pour this mixture into a larger saucepan, place over medium heat (do not boil) and stir until the mixture thickens slightly. In another saucepan, heat the 2 tablespoons sugar with 2 tablespoons water until a caramel is formed. Add this to the custard and blend well. (I added a little milk to this to dissolve the caramel, as I feared it would harden upon hitting the chocolate). Chill this overnight and then process in ice cream maker or freeze for 6-8 hours in a freezer-safe container.

Chocolate Gelato No. 2
Source (adapted):
Yield: about 1 quart.
2 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened)
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup evaporated milk
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons superfine granulated sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted (Dutch-process or regular, it’s your choice)
4 large egg yolks
pinch salt

Coarsely chop chocolate. In a 2-quart heavy saucepan bring milk, evaporated milk, and about half of sugar just to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add cocoa powder and chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Have ready a large bowl of ice and cold water. In a bowl with an electric mixer beat yolks, remaining sugar and salt until thick and pale. Add hot chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking, and pour into saucepan. Cook custard over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until a thermometer registers 160°F (I usually just do this by instinct – just don’t let it boil!). Pour custard through a sieve into a metal bowl set in ice and cold water and cool. Chill custard, covered, until cold. Freeze custard in an ice-cream maker (or else just place in freezer). Transfer to an airti
ght container and put in freezer to harden for several hours.

Chocolate Gelato No. 3
Source: Faith Willinger
Yield: about 3 cups
1 cup sugar
2 cups whole milk
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted (Dutch-process or regular, it’s your choice)
3.5 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped
4 large egg yolks, beaten lightly
pinch salt

In a dry 3-quart heavy saucepan cook 1/4 cup sugar, undisturbed, over moderate heat until it begins to melt and cook, stirring with a fork, until melted completely and deep golden brown. Remove pan from heat and dip pan briefly into a bowl of ice water to stop cooking. (Caramel will harden.) Cool pan about 5 minutes and return to heat. Add milk and cook over moderate heat, whisking, until caramel is melted. Whisk in cocoa until combined well and keep mixture warm. In a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water (or a double boiler), melt chocolate, stirring, and remove from heat. In a bowl with an electric mixer, beat egg yolks with remaining 3/4 cup sugar and pinch salt until thick and pale. Whisk in caramel mixture and chocolate in streams, whisking until combined. Pour custard into another 3-quart heavy saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until a candy thermometer registers 140° F. Cook custard, stirring (do not let it boil) 4 minutes more and remove pan from heat. Cool custard completely and freeze in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturers instructions (or just freeze 6-8 hours until solid, stirring once or twice).