The History Dish: Howqua’s Tea Ice Cream

 Coarse leaves of lapsang souchong tea. Photo by Selva.

You may have noticed the trend, in the fancy ice cream freezer at the grocery store, for bright green pints of “Green Tea Ice Cream.” The color, and flavor, comes from matcha, the green tea powder that is traditionally used in Japanese tea ceremonies.  Although the use of  matcha in confections is recent, the idea of tea-flavored ice cream is quite old.

Drinks, like tea, coffee, and “hot” chocolate, were some of the earliest ice cream flavors, first appearing in the 18th century. This recipe for Howqua’s-Tea Ice Cream, from The Ice Book, 1844, particularly captured my imagination.

Who’s this Howqua dude? Wu Ping-Chien, known as Howqua or Ho-Kwa in the West, was a Mandarin trader in the early 19th century. His family business worked heavily with England and the United States and by the time of the Opium War, Howqua was one of the richest men on the planet. Known for the fine quality of his products, his famous name was often appropriated to lend inferior brands of tea an air of luxury.
The name was often given to black tea blends, known to have a “delicious fragrant aroma” or a “peculiar flavor.”  Some brands seem to have gotten their unique taste from orange pekoe tea; while other relied on lapsang souchong. Lapsang souchong is made from course tea leaves plucked far away from the “bud” of the tea plant.  These leaves lack aromatic compounds and therefore flavor. To compensate, the leaves are dried over a smokey pine fire, resulting in a rich, black tea with a dark, smoked flavor.
I thought a smokey black tea might make for an interesting ice cream, so I tried it out. I used my standard custard ice cream recipe (below) and infused the milk and cream with 1/4 cup of loose leaf lapsang souchong tea.
The results? I swear to god it tasted just like bacon. It’s vegetarian bacon ice cream, with a flavor more subtle and complex than squirting liquid smoke into everything (the method often used to create “fake” bacon flavor).  Was it any good?  Debatable.  But it seems like the technique could be expanded upon and taken advantage of.  Give it a whirl and let me know how it goes.
Basic Custard Ice Cream
A Frankenstein combination of recipes from Thomas Jefferson, Martha Stewart, and Alton Brown.
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream

  • 1 cup whole milk

  • 1 vanilla bean (or, other flavoring of your choice)

  • 6 large egg yolks

  • 3/4 cup sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

  • Additional mix-ins

Add split and scraped vanilla bean to cream and milk in a saucepan. Bring to a boil.  In the meantime, in a glass bowl whisk together egg yolks, sugar and salt until blended. After cream mixture comes to a boil, pour slowly on the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return to saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard thickens slightly and evenly coats back of spoon (it should hold a line drawn by your finger).  Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl set over ice, or place in refrigerator, until chilled–overnight is preferable. Churn in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions, adding mix-ins like nuts or fruits in the last few minutes of freezing. Transfer ice cream to a resealable plastic container and freeze until firm, about 2 hours.

I learned about Howqua’s Ice Cream from Ivan Day’s Ice Cream: A History (Shire Library), a slim book packed with information and images about ice cream history.