Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Maple Cinnamon Ice Cream and a Sleigh Ride and Snowshoeing in Grand Lake...

Grand Lake, CO is a historic town, snuggled in the Rocky Mountains.  During the winter, Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest continuous highway in the United States, is closed since it's impassable due to snow.  Trail Ridge Road runs through Rocky Mountain National Park to Grand Lake, and is one of two ways to travel there.  The other way is on I-70, which can be pretty treacherous when it's snowy or icy, as it winds back and forth through the mountains.  I read that Grand Lake is one of only two towns in Colorado where it's completely legal to drive a snowmobile anywhere that you would your car, and there were plenty of snowmobiles parked all over main street.

On Saturday, Jamie and I drove to Grand Lake for a little Valentine's getaway.  The cabin he had reserved at the Rapids Lodge had frozen over, so instead they put us in one of their little suites.  After checking in, we drove a few miles to the Winding River Resort, a picturesque little place with cabins for rent, horse stables for sleigh rides, and plenty of snowmobile trails.  A faulty sign led us down the wrong road with deeper snow than we realized, and there was a moment when we were seriously afraid that we would not be able to get the car out of the snow.  Thankfully, Jamie got us out of there and back to the stables.

After the sleigh ride, we warmed up with steaming cups of hot chocolate while walking around the stables to see the rest of the animals, a few miniature horses and a snow-loving dog who digs rocks out of the snow and eats them.  They also have an antique buggy collection that they work to restore.  Then we toasted a couple of marshmallows over the fire while chatting with the owner, a rugged, real-life cowboy with tattered overalls and a bright blue handkerchief tied around his neck.

Back in town, we walked the snowy boardwalk through main street, and stopped at a little pub for a glass of wine (me) and beer (Jamie) and relaxed on a leather loveseat by the fire.  Then dinner at the Rapids Lodge Historic Restaurant, where our table overlooked the snowy woods out back; the snow was crisscrossed all over with the footprints of two foxes who we saw running through town later that night.

Full from dinner, we walked the quarter mile from our room back to main street, where we stopped at Grumpy's, the only place in town that sees any sort of night-life.  A few locals were hanging out at the bar, and Jamie and I played a game of shuffleboard, then a few games of pool with another couple we met there.

After sleeping in a little and getting a quick breakfast, we walked down to the lake, which is completely frozen over.  The ice comes right up to the docks, and we were able to step off the docks onto the lake and walk on the snow-covered frozen water.  We considered renting snowmobiles (something I've never done before), but not having a wind-proof jacket, decided it would be too cold.  So instead we rented snow shoes at the Nordic Center, where we followed a 2-mile loop through the woods, crunching along in our snow shoes.  I had always pictured snowshoes to look more like tennis rackets, but it turns out that's only how they look in cartoons.  :)  It was a real workout, much harder than hiking on solid ground, and it turned out to be a beautiful day to be outside.  It was so warm and sunny that I was way too hot in my snow pants and boots, long sleeved shirt and heavy sweater.  The woods were peaceful and still, the only sound to be heard was our snowshoes and the occasional twitter of a bird.

We got back to the lodge just in time to see a storm rolling in across the mountains, gray snow clouds descending over everything, so it was time to head back to Denver.

All this snow and cold weather makes me very grateful for my car.  A sleigh ride and a couple hours of snow-shoeing was fun, but would I want to have to travel to work or to friend's houses that way every day?  Definitely not.  I'm glad I live in modern times and not in a "Little House on the Prairie" episode.  My sister and I read those books over and over as kids, and I was pretty fascinated by their lifestyle - the way they traveled to school, the home cooking, tapping sap from a tree to make maple syrup.

Since getting my ice cream maker for Christmas, it's been fun coming up with new and different flavors, as well as trying to make them healthier while still tasting good.  Ice cream sweetened with real maple syrup sounded delicious and wintery to me.  And yes, it's winter, but don't people still eat ice cream?  In one of my writing classes in college, I wrote a short story where the characters were eating ice cream in December.  My teacher criticized that scene, saying it was unrealistic for them to eat ice in the winter.  Um, really?  Hmm, every normal person I know wouldn't turn down ice cream any time of year.

My taste buds have evolved quite a bit over the years.  I used to think that fake food was better than real food.  Real whipped cream couldn’t compare to Cool Whip.  No-bake boxed cheesecake mixes were so much better than real cheesecake.  Super-sweet syrup over real maple syrup any old day.  Fish sticks and tater tots – who would eat real fish when you could have those frozen delights?  Canned frosting and soup.

But then I started eating real food.  Avocado hummus that I made from fresh, natural ingredients.  Bright, berry preserves from nothing more than fresh fruit, sugar and lemon.  Whole fish, baked with lemon, onions, garlic and herbs, brushed with a little olive oil.  Made-from-scratch baked goods, ganache and custards.  My own marinara, bbq sauce and ketchup.  Freshly made ricotta from milk, salt and lemon, mixed with a few herbs to make a creamy spread for toasted bread.  Hot, yeasty bread, spiked with dried fruit and exotic spices.

My opinions and tastes changed and I’m happy to say there’s no going back.  Sure, there’s the occasional time when I’m in a hurry and I’ll still use a boxed mix – like the brownies I made for the Super Bowl party.  But it’s rare, and I always taste the difference.  Homemade is just so much better.

As I was thinking about real versus fake ingredients, I started thinking more about syrup, something we don’t usually have on hand, since we like to drizzle honey on pancakes and waffles.  But I thought how amazing the flavor of pure maple syrup would taste in ice cream.  I imagine that the pioneers would have made something similar, by drizzling a little syrup over a bowl of snow...

I should note for you that this is not a true ice cream, since it's made with milk and no cream, and the result is more like an ice milk, and not super creamy.  However, as I was trying to make it healthy, it worked for me.  The taste is still fabulous!  I've noted below an alternate recipe for a creamier, richer texture.

Maple Cinnamon Pecan Ice Cream (light version)
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • ½ cup pure maple syrup
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 vanilla bean, pod and seeds (or 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste)
  • 1 cup non-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1/3 cup chopped pecans (optional)

In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, maple syrup, salt, ground cinnamon and cinnamon stick.  Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add the seeds and the pod to the mixture.

Bring to a simmer over medium low heat, stirring to dissolve the syrup and salt.  The ground cinnamon will try to float on top, but after steeping for a while, it will eventually mix with the milk.  Remove from the heat and let steep for 1 hour.  Remove the vanilla bean pod and cinnamon stick, then pour the mixture through a mesh strainer to remove any bits of the vanilla bean pod.

Chill the mixture in the refrigerator overnight or until very cold.  Whisk the chilled mixture with the yogurt, then pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and freeze according to the instructions.   Stir the pecans into the mixture when it’s frozen to soft-serve consistency, then store the ice cream in the freezer and freeze until firm, about 4-6 hours.

Yields about 1 quart (8 servings (1/2 cup each).
(Weight Watchers Points Plus Value: 3 points, per ½ cup serving without pecans/ 4 points, per ½ cup serving with pecans)

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen.

Maple Cinnamon Ice Cream (not so light version)
  • 3/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
  • 2 tablespoons Captain Morgan Spiced Rum
  • 8 ounces low-fat cream cheese, slightly softened
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the maple syrup, salt, cinnamon, vanilla bean paste, rum, and cream cheese on medium speed, scraping the bowl occasionally, until very smooth, about 2-3 minutes.  With the mixer running, stream in the cream slowly but steadily.  Whip until well combined.  Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Fold in the pecans, then store in a container and freeze until firm, about 4-6 hours.

Yields about 1 quart.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen