Growing up in the U.S. every so often Mom would come back home with goodies from an Asian market or restaurant back when there were very few around, even in the heart of Los Angeles. We’d get excited over almond cookies or perfectly roasted Peking duck from Chinatown (before there was a Thai Town), funky-looking grass jelly, and the occasional coconut ice cream packed in a non-descript pint size tub. We never wondered why the local Thrifty’s ice cream counter (now Rite-Aid purchased by Albertson’s) didn’t offer this lighter sorbet-like treat and would go for the usual flavors of mint n’ chip or rocky road. So finding Thai coconut ice cream in the freezer was always a nice change for us kids after a session of bicycling mischief around the neighborhood.
Sometimes that pint of coconut ice cream had bits of sweet jackfruit, translucent palm seeds, cashew nuts, and corn. Yes, you read that correctly: corn. Coconut ice cream and corn is actually a tasty combination worth trying at least once. Other times it would be plain coconut ice cream and Mom would drizzle this Fanta-like red (“sala” or palm fruit) or green (jasmine) - two of the more iconic flavors - syrup called Hale’s Blue Boy, which she and many in her generation grew up having in many of their childhood sweets. But whichever type of coconut ice cream - with or without the fruit, nuts, and corn - we had back then, it was always its natural shade of coconut white. A good thing, probably, since no artificial colors were part of the original recipe.
The base of original Thai coconut ice cream called “itim kati” (ไอติมกะทิ) is typically made with only a handful of ingredients – coconut milk, Palmyra palm sugar, salt, and starch. That’s it. Coming from a tropical climate and a country where only 40 years ago having a refrigerator and telephone was considered a luxury, it’s all too amazing that this kind of delight made its way into Thai food fanfare. Spruce it up with native exotic fruits and nuts and you’ve got “itim kati” street vendors of Bangkok make a killing on during the very hot months of March through June.Easy to make in a few steps, it doesn’t require you to invest in an ice cream maker unless your want to fluff it up to its creamier cousin’s version. It’s also dairy and egg free, which makes for a happy group of vegetarians, vegans, and the lactose intolerant.
15-20 dried butterfly pea flowers
2 ¼ cups (500 ml) coconut milk (full-fat unsweetened dessert or cooking type)*
2-3 tbsp (24-36 g) sugar (white, brown, coconut, or Palmyra toddy palm**) or alternate sweetener
¼ tsp. (1.5 g) salt
2 tbsp. (15 g) cornstarch (arrowroot starch alternative)
- ½ tsp. (2.5 ml) vanilla extract (optional)
*Coconut milk used in Thai cuisine is made from fresh shredded coconut meat, usually packed in cans or cartons and found on regular shelves of a market. The refrigerated kind sold alongside almond or cashew nut milk is not recommended as it is usually derived from dried or desiccated shredded coconut milk, which has most likely been depleted of its fat content.
**Low glycemic index unrefined sugars such as toddy Palmyra palm sugar has a slightly alkaline pH level and may change the blue shade of color derived from the butterfly pea flowers. Sweetness is also not as sharp as refined white sugar, but contains notes of caramel and butterscotch.
1. Set aside 50 ml (2 tbsp.) coconut milk and pour the rest of it into a saucepan or small pot.
2. Add butterfly pea flowers and heat (low) until coconut milk begins to summer and color from flowers begins to steep. Stir until desired shade of blue. Add a tablespoon of water at a time if the mixture begins to thicken before desired shade of blue is attained.
3. Strain butterfly pea flowers, or remove from mixture with fork or chopsticks. Place mixture back into saucepan or small pot.
Add sugar and salt under low heat, stir until dissolved; vanilla extract (optional) and mix well.
4. Add sugar and salt under low heat, stir until dissolved; vanilla extract (optional) and mix well.
5. In a separate small mixing bowl or cup, mix 50 ml (2 tbsp.) of coconut milk with cornstarch until well mixed until dissolved. Add to simmering blue coconut milk mixture in saucepan, stirring continually while pouring to prevent clumping.
6. Stir well until mixture thickens. Allow to cool.
7. Pour into food grade freezable container. Cover and freeze for 6 hours before serving. Garnish with favorite toppings – pineapple, mango, jackfruit, roasted shredded coconut, and nuts are some of more popular ones that come to mind.
1. If you are waiting for the natural color of butterfly pea flower to continue bleeding into the mixture before it thickens, we recommend adding and stirring in 1 tablespoon of water at a time so it evaporates and helps emulsify the mixture as the color you are seeking is attained. Add or leave too much water in the mixture, it may result in an icier texture.
2. If after freezing the coconut ice cream becomes grainy or icy, pulse quickly in a blender for creamier and smoother texture before serving.
3. Do not bring coconut milk to a full boil on high heat as it will cause some of the oil in milk to separate, which is fine when cooking up a curry or stir-fry dish because it then acts as a cooking oil for other ingredients before pouring the rest of milk in. But this is not desired when making ice cream. We want the coconut milk to act as an emulsifier for our ice cream. So do not heat beyond a low simmer.
How’s It Taste?
Admittedly we were apprehensive as to how this recipe would come out. Having tried store-bought low calorie or light ice cream that included stabilizers and thickeners such as guar gum, and whey protein and lecithin to replace the role of eggs in the frozen dessert, we half-expected a similar graininess and icy texture similar to sorbets. However, we were pleasantly surprised as to how rich and creamy the texture is, akin to that of dairy ice cream. Taste-wise it’s a dreamy creaminess similar to dairy cream, naturally unsweetened but with a subtle nuttiness that allows a tinge of saltiness to balance sweetness from Palmyra toddy palm sugar. Not to be dominated, we also experienced a hint of butterfly pea flower in both aroma and flavor.
We’re not expert ice cream makers and definitely not connoisseurs of this frozen treat. But knowing that homemade no-churn ice cream can be as simple and easy as this and still taste pretty darn good, we may have to make more of it for friends and family to enjoy.
I grew up in L.A. and Ventura on a diet of both Thai and Western food. I watched and sometimes helped Mom make coconut milk from scratch back in the days when very few ancient ingredients were available. Burnt myself a few times, not from cooking, but from horsing around too much in the kitchen of her restaurant in Hollywood. I have to scars to show it too.
I now spend time in both Thailand on our family farm, and the U.S. where we bring to you good stuff from the tropics.
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