I’ve already gone on and on about maesil before, but to briefly recap, maesil are small green fruit that grow on maehwa trees, an East Asian relative of apricot and plum trees. We are lucky enough to have some maesil trees in our front garden, but the fruit won’t be ready for picking for another couple of weeks. Down south, the harvest has already begun.
Last year, when I visited Hong Ssang-ri, probably the most famous maesil farmer in the country, she proudly presented me with a cone of maesil ice cream — she said it was a new thing they had been working on for ages. Maesil on their own are very, very tart, but with the addition of sugar, they become quite tangy. They don’t really taste like plums or apricots (although closer to apricots than plums, for sure) — there’s something about them that reminds me of more of white grapes and, consequently, white wine, which may be why their flavor profile is so often deployed in Korean cooking. They bring a similar kind of rounding balance to heavy, rich or salty ingredients like soy sauce and sesame oil.
The point is, the ice cream was good, and I wanted to make some of my own, but to make it, I would first need to make maesilcheong, or maesil syrup. I use Hong’s syrup in my home cooking, and it is very good, but for something like ice cream, where the syrup would be the star, I wanted the rawness of homemade. Maesilcheong takes just over three months to make — you basically put the maesil in a giant plastic jug with loads of sugar and wait — so I wanted to get started as early as possible. Since it’s impossible to buy maesil in quantities less than 5-10kg, I called my mother-in-law to see if she’d like to split an order with me. But as always happens when I try to send her something, she ended up sending me something instead. She was recently diagnosed with diabetes and, as a result, she has a stockpile of unused homemade maesilcheong. Up came the package from Busan, and just like that, I’ve now got more maesilcheong than I know what to do with.
I thought a lot about how to best proceed and decided to try reducing the syrup down even further to get something like a golden syrup consistency, thinking it would do less to sabotage the texture of the custard in the ice cream while also concentrating the flavor. I went back and forth about whether or not to include any additional sugar at all, given how sweet maesilcheong is already, but in the end, I decided I still needed something to fluff up the egg yolks, so I just cut the sugar way back.
B, who makes nightly runs to the local mart for ice cream, was over the moon about the results. In fact, I only managed to get my hands on one small bowl out of the whole batch before it was gone. I think it’s going to be a constant request on his part, so maybe it’s not so bad to have a massive jug of maesilcheong taking up space in the fridge after all.
I know not everyone has access to maesil or maesilcheong, although you should most definitely be able to get some from a Korean grocery store if you’re not in Korea and there happens to be one nearby. I think later on, though, I may try this same recipe with honey, golden syrup and rice syrup, so if you have any of those on hands, it may be worth a shot to sub them in. But maesilcheong is an essential part of Korean cooking, for sauces and marinades and all kinds of things, so if you can figure out a way to get hold of some, I strongly recommend it. There’s really no solid replacement.
My trip to Gwangyang to visit Hong last June was, on some levels, miserable. It was the heat of summer already down south, and this spritely older woman had us scrambling up the side of steep mountains to pick the fruit. But it was also probably my favorite trip I took last year and resulted in one of my favorite articles I’ve ever written. Hong has a spirit and philosophy, both on food and on life, that can’t be matched. She believes that if you take care of nature, nature will take care of you and is a strong proponent of organic, sustainable farming. While we were picking greens for a salad she made for us later in the day, a caterpillar scrambled out of the bunch I was holding in my hand. “It’s alright,” she told me. “It’s a good sign. If the bugs won’t eat it, we shouldn’t be eating it, either.” She talks about the trees like they are her friends or her children, framing the physical signs the trees show when they are in need as something they are saying to her. She moved to the orchard when she got married, leaving behind all of her friends and family to live with her husband’s family instead, and the maehwa trees were her first new companions.
After we came down off that mountain, Hong had a maesil ice cream cone in all of our hands before we knew it. Sweaty and out of breath and with sun-kissed faces under the blaze of mid-afternoon, I realized I hadn’t eaten an ice cream cone like that since I was kid playing outside in summer. The ice cream, then, became a memory unto itself. So I try to recreate it, already nostalgic, like really good days tend to instantly be.
- 1 cup maesilcheong (or 1/2 cup golden syrup or honey)
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 vanilla pod (or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
- 10 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- Bring the maesilcheong to a low simmer over medium low heat. Simmer until reduced by half, stirring often (about 15 minutes). Take care to keep the heat low enough not to burn the sugar. You may have to reheat the syrup just before adding it to the cream and milk to re-liquify it if it cools down too much.
- Beat together the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl until the yolks are light in color and well aerated.
- Pour the milk and heavy cream into a saucepan over low medium heat. Slice the vanilla pod open vertically and place it in the cream/milk mixture. Bring the mixture to a simmer while stirring to prevent the bottom from burning or a skin from forming. When the mixture reaches a boil, remove the vanilla pod and stir in the maesil cheong. Temper the mixture into the egg yolks by slowly adding a little hot cream and milk at a time while constantly whisking. When all of the cream has been added to the yolks, return the mixture to the pan and slowly bring it up to a simmer while whisking. When the mixture reaches a simmer, pour it into a bowl to cool.
- While the custard is cooling, be sure to stir it every 5-10 minutes to prevent a skin from forming. When the custard reaches room temperature, cover the bowl and place it in the fridge until it is completely chilled (about 3 or 4 hours).
- When the custard has chilled, pour it into the ice cream machine and cream until it is soft-serve consistency. Transfer the ice cream to a container and place it in the freezer to finish firming up.
- If you don’t have an ice cream machine, pour the chilled custard into a large container and place it in the freezer. Every 15 minutes for the next 3 hours, remove the container from the freezer and stir it through thoroughly.