The Best, Worst & Most Unique of 2015

The year 2015 treated me well. It was a challenging year in some regards, but I’m heading into 2016 stronger and happier. Highlights of the past year included ringing in the new year with K and my in-laws in Australia, watching my sister Ava graduate from UCONN, salmon fishing in Alaska, finally visiting the McRae homeland in Scotland, and a “family weekend” in New York City this fall. In August, K and I celebrated a successful first year of marriage. And in December, I officially entered my 30s. There’s a heck of a lot to be grateful for!

Not surprisingly, many of my favorite memories from 2015 involved ice cream. Here is a recap of the best, the worst, and the weirdest ice creams I experienced in 2015. I hope you enjoy!

All-Around Best Ice Cream:
Magic Bar at FoMu Ice Cream (Jamaica Plains, MA)

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Best New Recipe:
Toasted Oat Ice Cream (no-churn!)

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Best Atmosphere:
Lapp Valley Farm (New Holland, PA)

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Worst Ice Cream:
Millions at Waltons Traditional Sweet Shop

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Most Unique Ice Cream:
Chocolate Chip at Greedy Goat (London, U.K.)

Bottom scoop: Chocolate Chip; Top scoop: Salted Caramel

What was your favorite ice cream from 2015?

Third Day in Scotland: Stewart Tower Dairy

The morning after our special night at the Three Chimneys, K and I woke up to this view:

IMG_8376I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t still dreaming! Our fast-paced itinerary had us traveling to Edinburgh that afternoon, so we reluctantly packed our bags into the rental car and drove off the magical Isle of Sky. But not before a quick walk (for me) and run (for him) along the water and breakfast in the stunning Three Chimneys sitting room.

The drive from the Three Chimneys to Edinburgh took us about 5 hours. Under normal circumstances, I’d be bored and restless sitting in a car for so long. But the vast and diverse beauty of Scotland kept me thoroughly entertained. We drove through a section of Cairngorms National Park, the largest park in the United Kingdom. I found myself nodding off at one point but quickly snapped myself out of it just to experience what was outside my passenger seat window!

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iPhone photos don’t do Scotland justice!

About two-thirds of the way to Edinburgh, K pointed out one of those highway signs that lists food and lodging options accessible via the upcoming exit. The sign read “Stewart Tower Dairy,” which he insisted had to be an ice cream shop. But I wasn’t convinced. The area off the highway still seemed quite remote, and I couldn’t imagine we’d find anything besides a dairy farm. I said we should probably just keep driving, but K overrode me (driver’s prerogative) and took the next exit.

We quickly found ourselves on a narrow rural road — there were hardly any other cars, nor any businesses in sight. Still, K forged on with a sense of adventure. His conviction was contagious, so I wasn’t too surprised when a large dairy farm and shop came into view. Our gamble had paid off!

IMG_8960Despite being far off the beaten path, Stewart Tower Dairy appears to do a bustling business. There were plenty of cars in the parking lot, and we spotted the animal farm with a petting area. And dairy cows were grazing in every direction.

IMG_8491K and I entered the dairy shop, where we first found ourselves in a room with specialty grocery items — including an impressive selection of cheese and milk. This dark-wood room led into a bigger and brighter circular room (aptly called the “Round House”) with plenty of seating for customers. This is where I found what I was looking for… ice cream!

IMG_8487Stewart Tower Dairy makes their ice cream in the Italian soft-style gelato style. There were well over a dozen flavors behind the glass counter. Some were traditional, like Vanilla, Chocolate, and Mint Chocolate Chip. But there were quite a few interesting combinations like Orange Chocolate Crunch, Toffee and Fudge Pieces, and Turkish Delight. I was immediately drawn to the Pink Panther, described as strawberry ice cream with white chocolate and strawberry pieces. Isn’t it gorgeous?

IMG_8489K usually gravitates to sorbets, and he immediately picked out Mango Passionfruit Ripple. The guy absolutely LOVES passionfruit. We decided to share one cup, and the double scoop of gelato was  €3.25, so less than $4. The serving size was perfect.

IMG_8488The verdict? K was a bit more impressed with this gelato than I was. But it was still very good, and we had no problem polishing off this cup. Neither flavor had that rich, silky texture or almost buttery flavor that I’d expect ice cream coming from grass-fed cows to have. I’m guessing this might be due to the lower fat content of gelato. K and I both agreed, however, that Stewart Tower Dairy’s flavor creations were well-executed. Not surprisingly, K’s favorite was Mango Passionfruit Ripple and mine was the Pink Panther. The Mango Passionfruit Ripple tasted tropical and refreshing, and K was happy to actually taste the passionfruit. Oftentimes, mango overpowers whatever it’s paired with. I really appreciated that the strawberry gelato in the Pink Panther wasn’t too sugary sweet. The white chocolate chips were delicious and just the right size: small enough for easy chewing, but hefty enough to taste the white chocolate.

I’d love to return to Stewart Tower Dairy and enjoy a lazy afternoon with family, enjoying cups of coffee and gelato before meandering around the beautiful Scottish grounds.

The Stats:
Stewart Tower Dairy
Stanley
Perth PH1 4PJ
Scotland
http://www.stewart-tower.co.uk

Second Day in Scotland: Three Chimneys’ Toasted Oat Ice Cream

Our second day in Scotland was both my and K’s favorite day of our vacation. We woke up bright and early to start the long drive from Fort William to the Isle of Skye. As one of Scotland’s top three destinations, Isle of Skye is well-known for its stunning scenery and quaint seaside towns.

Another one of our “must sees,” the Eilean Donan Castle, is conveniently located right near the bridge to Skye. The castle has deep ties to the Clan MacRae, which my father’s side of the family descends from. It was so fun exploring the castle and spotting “MacRae” everywhere!

11938674_10103208222353534_8533718171967573635_oAfter the castle, it was a short drive to the Isle of Skye. I wish the photos we took from the car did this beautiful drive justice, because it was unbelievable, but alas the iPhones just didn’t cut it. Isle of Skye’s name comes from the old Norse sky-a, which means “cloud island.” I couldn’t describe the island any better than that! The vast sky and spectacular clouds seem closer to earth on that island.

Our first stop was the Talisker Distillery, where we took a tour of how Talisker makes their famous single malt Scotch whiskey. I don’t like whiskey, but I love tours! If you make the trip to Skye, I highly recommend a visit to Talisker.

We saved our last stop for last: The Three Chimneys and the House Over-by. I had stumbled across the inn and restaurant while reading some tour books that my girlfriend generously loaned me this summer. The restaurant has a Michelin star, and the TripAdvisor reviews were impressive. We considered our stay a first wedding anniversary present to ourselves. And nothing could have compared me for how special this little oasis is. It is located closer to the “middle of nowhere” on the Isle of Skye; we had to break many times for sheep crossing the single-lane road. There was no cell service. But, man, was it worth the trek!

IMG_8377From the moment we arrived at the House Over-By (the inn, which is located on the right-hand side in this photo), K and I felt welcome and relaxed. Our room was elegant yet cozy, offering a stunning view of the Loch across the street.

IMG_8376After a quick rest (nap for me) in our room, K and I got ready for dinner. We convened with the other guests in the House Over-By’s sitting area, where we enjoyed a glass of champagne and met our table-mates for the evening, Ian and Sheila. K and I had elected to eat dinner at the Three Chimneys’ “Kitchen Table,” which is just what it sounds like. Diners get the opportunity to enjoy a multi-course meal while observing the chaos (or lack thereof) of a fine restaurant’s kitchen. Below is a photo of our table that K took the next morning:

FullSizeRenderEating dinner at the Three Chimneys’ Kitchen Table was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. Not only was the food incredible (a personal favorite: beetroot cured Solway salmon with quail egg and pickled cauliflower), but the service was the best I’ve had. Our server, Charlotte, was meticulous yet warm and friendly. She ensured that no gluten touched my plates and that our wine glasses remained full at all times. Our conversation with Ian and Sheila also added to the experience; Ian recently bought a house a couple miles from the Three Chimneys, and he and Sheila gave us plenty of local tips. We felt lucky to share this incredible experience with two new friends.

Charlotte had encouraged us to get up and explore the different stations in the kitchen. Naturally, Sheila and I made a beeline for the pastry area. There, pastry chef Jackie showed us how to make the Three Chimneys’ signature dessert: Hot Marmalade Pudding Souffle. Essentially, she makes a paste by pureeing traditional Scottish sticky pudding and combining that paste with whipped egg whites, sugar, a tiny bit of flour (left out for gluten-free versions) and milk. She then divided the mixture into special ceramic cups, popped them into the oven, and voilá! Jackie made the finicky pastry look like a breeze to make.

Our Hot Marmalade Pudding Souflees were served with Drambuie (whiskey) Syrup and Mealie Ice Cream. Jackie even wrote “Congratulations” on K and my plates for our first anniversary.

FullSizeRender_1We all agreed that the Mealie Ice Cream was delicious, but I had been expecting cornmeal-flavored ice cream. But Jackie told me that it was actually Scottish oatmeal ice cream, and that she made it without an ice-cream maker! The ingredients were quite simple: oats, eggs, sugar, and cream. I immediately resolved to make myself it.

Just this past weekend, I picked up my ingredients and attempted to recreate some of the Three Chimneys’ magic here in Washington, D.C. My surroundings weren’t quite as picturesque, but I had great company (K was home!) and my Scottish memories to lean on.

IMG_8873First, I toasted some oats and brown sugar in the oven. Jackie didn’t use brown sugar, but it felt wrong to toast naked oats. The granola-lover in me just couldn’t do it.

IMG_8875While my oats cooled, I channeled my memories of Jackie beating eggs for souffle and decided to beat the egg whites for an airy ice cream. Since I was attempting this recipe without an ice-cream maker, I figured I could aerate the ice cream this way.

IMG_8874I added sugar to the egg whites, beat them a bit more, and then added slightly-whipped cream, vanilla, salt and the egg yokes. After a brief stint in the freezer, I folded in my oats.

IMG_8876Despite being a no-churn ice cream, the final product was very easy to scoop and looked just as airy as traditional ice cream that I make in my Cuisinart machine. Each scoop had plenty of toasty-brown oats, and K and I couldn’t wait to dig in!

IMG_8877Toasted Oat Ice Cream (No-Churn!)
{Makes 1.5 quarts}
Inspired by the Three Chimneys Restaurant

Ingredients
• 2/3 cup oats (I used gluten-free; feel free to grind to finer consistency)
• 1/4 cup brown sugar
• 4 free-range eggs, yokes and whites separated
• 1.5 cups whipping cream
• 1 cup superfine sugar (or grind cane sugar in a food processor)
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• pinch of salt

Instructions:
• Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread oats evenly on a baking tray, then sprinkle brown sugar on top. Bake until slightly toasted and smells nutty — probably 5 to 10 minutes. Pull out tray and allow to cool.
• Whisk the egg whites in a bowl until firm peaks form when you pull out the whisk. At this point, add the superfine sugar and whisk until sugar is incorporated and egg whites look glossy.
• Whisk the cream in a separate bowl. Then, add the cream, egg yokes, vanilla, and salt to the egg whites. Gently fold these ingredients into the egg whites.

• Pour into an airtight plastic container and freeze for 15-30 minutes. Take container out of freezer, fold in the oatmeal and brown sugar mixture, and return to freezer for another two hours.

The verdict? If you like oatmeal or muesli, you will love this recipe! Both the taste and texture of this ice cream reminded me of muesli or “overnight oats.” Per my note in the ingredient list above, I realized that the Three Chimneys must have ground their oats up a bit since I couldn’t remember eating full oats. While K and I both enjoyed the unique chewy texture and sweet creamy ice cream, it would have been easy to grind the oats before adding them to the ice cream. Also, I’m glad that Jackie tipped me off as to the ease of no-churn ice cream. This recipe was simple to make, yet it tasted good enough to serve at the Three Chimneys.

The Stats:
Three Chimneys Restaurant
1 Colbost
Isle of Skye, IV55 8ZT
Scotland

First Day in Scotland: Waltons Traditional Sweet Shop

I’m turning 30 years old in a few months. I’m not sure why, but this impending milestone has coincided with a new interest in my  ancestry. My father was born and raised in Australia, and I have always known that the McRae’s came to Australia via Scotland. And, no, they weren’t convicts… at least that we know about! Lucky for me, one of my dad’s cousin had a passion for genealogy and traced the family tree back over centuries.

K knew that I was itching to visit my ancestral homeland, and he graciously suggested that we visit this summer (even though the weather wouldn’t be warm). So a couple weeks ago, we packed our bags and grabbed our raincoats for a quick visit to Scotland.

We began the trip with a one-night layover in Dublin. It was both of our first times to Ireland, and I have to say that I loved what I saw! We spent the evening walking around downtown and popped into a couple little pubs before having dinner at a trendy restaurant recommended to us by the concierge.

IMG_8337The next morning,  we headed to the airport to catch a flight to Glasgow, Scotland. Based on some friends’ recommendations, we didn’t spend any time in downtown Glasgow. Instead, we prioritized our time on the Isle of Skye and Edinburgh. It was a 5-hour drive to Isle of Skye from Glasgow, though, so I made arrangements for us to spend the night in Fort William, the second-largest establishment in the Highlands of Scotland.

Fort William sits near the head of Loch Linnhe, one of the longest sea lochs in the country. In retrospect, it was an extra-brilliant idea to stay overnight here because A) it’s conveniently located halfway between Glasgow and Isle of Skye and thus broke up K’s first experience driving on the left-hand side of the road, and B) we both enjoyed spending time in Fort William. Neither of us had anticipated how tiring (and trying) driving in a different country can be. K ended up doing really well, but my adrenaline sure was pumping! The roads can be quite narrow in Scotland, and we had to dodge plenty of big campers and tourist buses since it was still vacation season. The views of green hills, waterfalls, and plentiful lochs (i.e. lakes) kept our spirits high, though.

When we finally made it safely to Fort William, we immediately checked in at The Grange, a beautiful bed and breakfast run by a sweet and accommodating proprietor named Joan. We briefly rested in our room before venturing on a short walk to the “downtown” area… which ended up being far from cosmopolitan! I couldn’t get over how quaint and welcoming the main pedestrian street, High Street, was. It felt like we had been transported into one of the BBC shows my mom adores (i.e. Doc Martin).

High_Street_Fort_William_-_geograph.org.uk_-_943438Source: Wikipedia

We had a 8pm dinner reservation at the iconic seafood restaurant on Loch Linnhe, The Crannog.  Exploring downtown took much less time than we’d planned (it’s so small!), and we had a couple hours to fill. We enjoyed some cider and beer at a lively pub. Afterwards, I convinced K to indulge in a small “ice cream appetizer” at a sweets shop I’d spotted earlier.

IMG_8515Waltons Traditional Sweet Shop is located right on High Street and sells both candy and ice cream. The inside of the store reminded me of an old-fashioned general store, with big glass jars lining the entire walls, filled with candies, mints, and chocolates. I couldn’t help but grab a bag of homemade ginger candies. Before I could be further tempted by the beautiful candy selection, I headed over to the ice cream counter.

IMG_8523IMG_8520The neat tubs and corporate-looking signage made me think that Waltons was a chain, but a subsequent internet search proved my theory wrong. Either way, there were plenty of options to consider. There were a couple fruit sorbets (normal types of flavors), a traditional vanilla and berry flavor,  but most of the flavors that stood out to me involved chocolate — Toffee Fudge, Ferrero Rocher,  and Bounty. But I wasn’t craving chocolate, and I embraced that opportunity to try something different. It’s rare that I don’t make a beeline to the chocolate!

K liked the look of the colorful Millions ice cream. Millions are chewy little U.K. candies that come in many fruity flavors. I was drawn to the Honeycomb, which didn’t exactly sound complementary but delicious nonetheless. We forked over about three euros for a two-scoop cup.

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IMG_8514The verdict? Sadly, this ice cream was nothing to write home about. It wasn’t bad, but it was not great. I can barely conjure up the taste sitting here writing this post. .. a surefire sign that it wasn’t memorable. Of the two flavors, Honeycomb was the winner by a landslide. K and I agreed that it reminded us of caramel ice cream, but with a honey twist. Most of the honeycomb flavor was concentrated in the thick swirl, while the base was mild and sweet. I couldn’t help wishing for some crunch, perhaps due to my love of the crunchiness of my beloved Violet Crumble candy bar. The Millions, however, was sugary sweet and reminded me of cotton candy. Neither of us wanted more than a couple bites before tossing it away and heading to dinner… which was fantastic by the way 🙂

The Stats:
Waltons Traditional Sweet Shop
55C High Street
Fort William, Inverness-Shrire PH33-6DH
Scotland