(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
For some, the holiday season means traditions like trips to see Santa or a favorite seasonal performance. For others, it’s all about the food.
Downtown Boston offers varied options on both fronts this year, including a chance to combine the two through a special holiday menu that began Saturday at Kingston Station. To complement the Boston Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” around the corner at the Boston Opera House, the restaurant is offering a “Nutcracker”-themed family tea featuring handmade ice cream in favorite holiday flavors.
The fresh ice cream served at Kingston Station is the work of its executive chef, 34-year-old Dana Love. Love grew up in a Sicilian family in the Orient Heights section of East Boston, but unlike many professional chefs, food wasn’t a lifelong obsession for Love, or something he learned at his mother’s knee. His mother has never been all that interested in cooking. “I actually teach her a lot of stuff,” he said.
Love’s passion for food grew out of the many restaurant jobs he’s had, starting as a dishwasher while still in high school and moving on to food preparation and eventually to cooking. “I pretty much went through every job,” he said, and the more he learned, the more interested he became.
Love landed at Kingston Station in October 2007 after stints at Prezza in the North End and at Copia in Charlestown, and he’s been making ice cream for the restaurant since sometime in 2008. He learned the skill while working under Chef David Fitzgerald at the Oxford Street Grill in Lynn. There he was mostly making the standard chocolate and vanilla, but he quickly became interested in trying more adventurous flavor combinations, including several inspired by drinks served at the bar.
“I like to do as much as I can with the cocktail list,” he said, including ice cream flavors based on Kingston Station’s popular rum-based drink, the Fidel Castro; the classic Dark and Stormy; licoricey absinth, and on various Italian spiked coffees.
He said alcohol doesn’t just add flavor but enhances the texture of the ice cream, keeping it softer at lower temperatures. It’s important to him to get the right texture naturally. He uses “no softeners, no stabilizers; it’s all fresh, simple, basic ingredients.”
Sometimes those ingredients have included experiments with savory flavors, such as parmesan and roasted garlic ice cream. But such concoctions aren’t an easy sell to a lunch crowd of downtown office workers, so Love mostly sticks to reliable favorites. “Anything with chocolate is always a big hit,” he said. “And coffee.”
For the holidays, Love is serving up four flavors: hot chocolate, peppermint stick, gingerbread, and eggnog, which comes in a version that includes alcohol and another that is alcohol-free. He makes each batch by hand in the restaurant’s compact kitchen, usually two quarts at a time — the most his ice-cream maker will hold. Depending on demand, he makes new batches once or twice a week, so the ice cream customers are served is never more than a few days old.
He said he’d like to do a cookbook someday and include instructions for making his inventive ice cream flavors, but first he’ll have to write them down. “All my recipes are up here,” he point to his head.
Love was in the kitchen last Tuesday making up a fresh batch of the eggnog ice cream — the alcoholic version. He started by whisking fresh eggs and sugar in a large, metal bowl until they reached a pale yellow, and then slowly adding milk and cream heated just to 185 degrees. Love said this custard base is the same as he would use for crème brûlée.
He then put the mixture back on low heat until it was just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. “Sometimes it takes five minutes, sometimes 15 minutes,” he said. Once the consistency was right, he poured it through a fine mesh strainer — to catch any grittiness or curdled egg bits — and into an iced bowl.
He often leaves the ice cream base in a refrigerator overnight to cool before adding the final ingredients — particularly when he’s adding liquor, it’s important to let the base cool thoroughly first so the alcohol doesn’t cook off.
Once the mixture reaches the right temperature, Love adds brandy, spiced rum, nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla extract. Then he pours the mixture into the ice-cream maker for 25 – 30 minutes to aerate and chill it into a creamy, slightly frozen state. He likes to remove it from the machine while it still has a soft-serve consistency and then to let it harden at least four or five hours, sometimes overnight.
Love said making the ice cream by hand is extra work, but it’s all worth it. “You can definitely taste the difference,” he said. “It’s like anything else — processed foods [aren’t the same as fresh foods]. I’m not into that at all.”
For more information about Kingston Station’s “Nutcracker” ice cream and tea, visit http://kingstonstation.com/theater/.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)