One of my very favorite things in the world is to not follow directions — or more specifically, skim through the directions and then ignore whatever steps seem tedious or unnecessary, and then use the remaining steps as inspiration for embellishment.
Even as a kindergartner, I would see the lines on the coloring sheet, and then disregard them in order draw a bunch of additional things that I believed would enhance the original boring picture. In musical terms, it’s variations on a theme. It’s Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but only every other note and played on a tuba, just to see how it sounds.
So when I came across this old recipe for Date Nut Ice Cream Pie, I became excited to try it, because it seemed like I could tinker with it in all kinds of ways, inventing something new and better, or at least new.
The main ingredients are simple: no-bake crust, vanilla ice cream, dates, pecans, sugar. There is a step involving gelatin, but I could figure that out when I got to it (or laugh it off if I botched it). The rest seemed as easy as, well, pie. Or at least as easy as letting ice cream melt, and I can definitely do that.
Date Nut Ice Cream Pie
First, the crust. Mix 1½ cups well-crushed vanilla wafers with 1/3 cup melted butter and press firmly into the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan, then chill. I got experimental from the get-go and used ginger snaps instead of vanilla wafers, though I think pecan sandies would be delicious, too.
Now for the gelatin step. I have never used unflavored gelatin in anything except jam, and I wasn’t sure I could get it to work. I’ve never even seen an envelope of unflavored gelatin and was half-surprised to find a packet of four at the grocery store, so let that be a lesson to me: All kinds of things exist in the world without me having to see them in order for them to be real. Take that, Monika’s brain.
The directions for this step were a little unclear to me, but here’s what it says: sprinkle 1 tablespoon (1 envelope) of gelatin into ½ cup cold water. When was I supposed to do this step? How long is the gelatin supposed to be gelling in the water? I don’t know. I guessed and did this step at the beginning so that the gelatin would have time to gel, or whatever it was meant to be doing.
Next, let 2 pints of vanilla ice cream soften, but keep each pint separate. Further, who’s to say it has to be vanilla? Why not butter pecan or rocky road or chocolate chip? In the end, I restrained myself and stuck with vanilla because it could serve as a sort of blank canvas for whatever mix-ins I chose to add. I did, however, invest in some super-premium vanilla bean ice cream so that it would at least taste a little good no matter what I mixed into it.
Here’s where I started tinkering. Into each of the softened pints, I added ½ teaspoon powdered ginger and ¼ teaspoon cardamom. (Don’t tell my husband about the cardamom because he says he doesn’t like it. I think he simply doesn’t realize that he likes it, and I have to help him realize that by sneaking it into things.)
Spread one of the pints of ice cream onto the chilled crust and put it into the freezer to solidify. Set the other pint aside or put it in the fridge, but don’t let it get so soft that it’s soupy. In other words, don’t do what I did.
Now take 1½ cups pitted and chopped dates (about 8 ounces) and put them in a saucepan with ½ cup water (not the gelatin water, just plain water), 1 tablespoon lemon juice and ½ cup sugar. I added only 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, because dates are already very sweet. I also added 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger, 1 teaspoon orange zest and a pinch of (shhhhh!) cardamom. Cook until dates are soft, stirring often to keep them from burning. At this point, I was supposed to turn the heat off and stir in the gelatin-water, but it was disturbingly gelatinous now, an opaque, gloppy mush. I tossed it in the trash.
The recipe says to add 1/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans to the date mixture, but I didn’t think that ¼ cup of nuts was very nutty at all, so I upped it to ½ cup nuts. This is a Date Nut Pie after all, and you want truth in advertising. I used dry-roasted and lightly salted cashews instead of pecans, because my husband likes cashews. (Don’t ask me how it makes sense to add cardamom, which he doesn’t like, but change the nuts to something he likes.) If you don’t like pecans or cashews, why not use pistachios, hazelnuts or macadamia nuts? Why not go really crazy and use Brazil nuts? (Does anyone even like Brazil nuts?) Why not use all the nuts in the world, including candlenuts, kola nuts and Malabar chestnuts? You will hold the record for Most Nut Varieties Used in a Dessert at One Time, if that’s a category.
But back to modest goals. When the first layer is frozen, spread the date-and-nut mixture over the top. I thought that it could also benefit from a layer of bittersweet chocolate — I mean, what dessert wouldn’t? — so I grated half a chocolate bar over the date layer, then spread the remaining ice cream over that. I put it back in the freezer overnight.
The next morning at about 11 (because that’s when you need ice cream pie the most), I cut it into slices and realized that the reason the recipe specifies a vanilla wafer crust is that you can actually cut it. The frozen ginger snaps were like cold, hard steel. I persevered but the ice cream was already a little melty by the time I got it into my mouth.
On the plus side, I was secretly vindicated that my husband and daughter loved it, proving my point that cardamom is delicious.