Clare de Boer and Jess Shadbolt met in 2013 as line cooks at the River Cafe in London. “It was very clear from the outset that we loved the same food,” de Boer recalls. “Some people will gravitate toward the giant racks of veal and some people spend more time eating the beans. We were the latter.”
The two Brits have since made names for themselves as chef-owners of King in New York, where the menu is a hyperseasonal, British-accented combination of Italian and French fare, at once cozy and subtly unexpected. In summer, heirloom tomato salad is served with whipped bottarga; come winter, chargrilled quail meets rosemary branches, braised chicory and anchovy. The simple platings have a faintly undone air that evokes home cooking. “All cooking is elemental at its core,” de Boer muses. “We just kind of lean into that.”
Like home food, the dishes here feel spontaneously conceived, just for you, and essentially, they are; the menu changes twice daily, seven days a week. “And that’s not a ‘concept,’ ” Shadbolt says. “When we opened, everyone was like, What’s your concept? And our concept was to cook really delicious but elevated simple food, and in order to do that, and to work with the [purveyors] that we want to work with, that means we have to change it every now and then. You cannot rely on nature to provide you with bang-ripe tomatoes for the whole week.”
Dessert at King is seasonally inspired as well. October brings prune-Armagnac ice cream. A riff on rum raisin, “it’s dark and stormy,” a nod to the dipping temperature, Shadbolt says.
Classically, in French and British kitchens, “You put your prunes in Armagnac and you forget about them,” de Boer notes, “and then you have one as a naughty snack.” The French brandy, distilled from white wine, plumps the prunes and imparts a caramelly, spiced essence. The duo uses this method to prepare the prunes for their ice cream.
Partner Annie Shi pairs the dessert with family distiller Jean Cavé’s 1990-vintage Armagnac, which, thanks to the taming influence of age, has a “mellow creaminess” that echoes the ice cream, with crushed rose petal, patchouli, citrus and clove details framing an unmistakable grape-must core. “That is what I love most about Armagnac,” Shi says. “You remember that it’s a product of wine.” Rather than enjoying the spirit alongside the ice cream, she favors sipping it as a post-dessert dessert. “For me, it prolongs the pleasure of the meal in a very hedonistic way.”
Just because the weather is starting to cool doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in a creamy swoop of ice cream, and this moody number is just the thing for fall—especially when paired with vintage Armagnac, whose warmth balances the dessert’s chill to dramatic effect.
The first step to making ice cream at home? “Being in possession of an ice cream churner,” de Boer says. She and Shadbolt applaud all those who are. For their part, she says with a laugh, “Us in New York don’t have the cupboard space.” However, if you have the gear, you’ve cleared the biggest hurdle of all, and the ladies of King are here to walk you through the rest of the process step by step.
A prune and a raisin walk into a bar. Time it was, raisins were all the rage and prunes were for old fuddy-duddies. Of course, that time was kindergarten, and today, we ourselves have become the prune-eating old fuddy-duddies. How the tables have turned!
Shadbolt and de Boer are staunchly in the prune-eating camp, particularly when it comes to finding things to soak in brandy. “We like prunes so much more than we like raisins,” de Boer says, “because they’re not just straightforward and sweet. There’s more body in the texture and a little bit more flavor too.” Shadbolt adds that the skin of a prune is smoother and softer, less tough, than that of a raisin. And that’s not all: “Because their size is a little bit bigger,” she advises, “they really take on the booze, which is obviously the best bit. They become superplump.”
Custard-making: “definitely a skill.” French-style ice cream—silkier, softer and less icy than its American counterpart—is anchored by an egg custard base. Making custard is something of a delicate business: Milk and cream are gently heated, tempered into a mixture of sugar and egg yolk, and then heated again, with the egg acting as an emulsifier. When done correctly, this gentle heating process begets a velvety, rich custard. But overheat your cream and milk, or temper the egg yolk too quickly, and the heat will cause the yolk to scramble, thereby ruining the custard. “It’s definitely a skill,” de Boer acknowledges. “The first time Jess and I made ice cream, I imagine we scrambled the yolk for the first five.” But learning how to do it, even if you flub the process once or twice, is worth it; when you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’ll find it’s easy to make ice cream in a range of flavors.
Low and slow > hot and fast. This is not a time to crank the heat and wing it; the best way to ensure a good end result is to take the time to heat your custard very gently at all phases of the process. First, warm the milk and egg mixture over low heat; it should just be warm to the touch, not hot. You’ll ladle two-thirds of the liquid into your bowl of egg yolk and sugar, adding it in a thin stream—again, the idea is not to heat the yolk too quickly. Once it’s incorporated, it all goes back on the heat.
“Hold your nerve.” Finely tuned focus is the name of the game here. “There’s a hairline moment that you’ve really got to focus in for,” de Boer advises: “Once you have the eggs in, it’s like frying a slice of garlic. You’ve really got to pay attention to what’s going on.”
“Hold your nerve,” Shadbolt agrees.
“If you’re going too quickly, if you’re not paying attention, you’re going to end up straining out ‘oeuf broilée’ in your cream,” de Boer chuckles.
Oof. How to avoid “oeuf broilée”? Though this might sound a stressful prospect, Shadbolt calls the egg-heating process “a meditative moment, the best part of making ice cream.” It’s all in the stir: “I always go in figure of eights,” she says. “It’s more of an even exchange of heat within the custard, because you want to make sure everything is being moved across the bottom of the pan.” This lowers the likelihood that hot spots will develop and scramble the eggs. At this point, as you stir the mixture, “The milk and cream turn into something silkier and a little bit more viscous,” Shadbolt says.
But how do you know if you’ve overheated your custard? If you’re a gadget person, an instant-read thermometer is a good way to go. Once it registers between 175° F and 180° F, you should pull the custard off the heat. However, de Boer and Shadbolt prefer to kick it old school. “You know what the trick is?” Shadbolt says. “Stick your finger in, and if it feels hot, it’s too hot.”
De Boer agrees. “If you’re hurting your hand, it’s already gone too far,” she says. “You can pass it through a strainer. You’ll be able to see curdling egg yolks.” At that point, you’ll need to start over, though once you’ve removed the cooked egg, you can reuse the strained milk and cream mixture.
And how do you know when it’s finally done cooking? The texture will tell you. “When you first put [the yolks] in, it will still feel like you’ve got a heavy pouring cream,” de Boer explains, “and you want to cook it until the point where it becomes almost maple-syrup consistency. Everyone talks about coating the back of a spoon, so that’s what you’re looking for, and then just get it off the heat immediately. Your [pan] is also very hot and will keep transferring heat, so pour it into another container to stop that cooking from progressing.”
Pairing Tip: Why Armagnac Works with this Dish
Armagnac is a natural choice alongside ice cream infused with the same Gascony-born spirit. Cognac could work too but is double-distilled and therefore subtler. In contrast, “Because [Armagnac] only gets distilled once, it retains more of the fruit and the minerality,” says partner Annie Shi. Of her nearly 30-year-old selection, she says, “It’s a little bit more aromatic, a little bit gentler, not as like a trail of fire down your throat into your belly.”
Chefs’ Pick Jean Cavé Armagnac 1990
Prune Armagnac Ice Cream
Recipe courtesy of chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, and tested by Wine Spectator’s Rori Kotch.
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 7 egg yolks
- 1 1/4 cup whole milk
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup (about 20) pitted prunes
- 1/4 cup Armagnac, such as Jean Cavé Trois Etoiles, plus more to taste
1. To make the prunes plump and juicy, place them in an airtight container and cover with the Armagnac. Cover container, transfer to the refrigerator and let chill overnight. When ready to make the ice cream, drain the prunes, reserving the delicious liquor separately.
2. In a large bowl, beat together the sugar and egg yolks until pale, about 2 minutes.
3. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, gently warm the milk and cream over low heat, stirring occasionally. After about 5 minutes, it will come to a simmer, with a few small bubbles forming around the edges. Immediately ladle two-thirds of the milk-and-cream mixture into the bowl with the egg yolks, pouring in a slow stream and whisking continuously to combine. Once the mixture is smooth and well-incorporated, return it to the pan with the remaining milk and cream, and heat over medium-low. Continue to slowly cook out the eggs, stirring constantly in a figure-eight motion. Carefully test the temperature of the custard with a finger; it should be warm, not hot, and you must not let it boil. Once it has thickened to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 4 minutes, remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof container. Stir in the reserved prune liquor and 1 tablespoon or so more Armagnac to taste, if needed. Let cool completely. Chill custard in the refrigerator until completely cold, overnight or for up to 2 days.
4. Churn the ice cream base according to your ice cream maker’s package instructions. Tear or roughly chop the prunes, and ripple them through the base as you extract it from the machine. Freeze for 2 to 4 hours. Serves 6 to 8.