Chocolate sorbet may seem a contradiction in terms; chocolate is such a classic pairing with dairy that divorcing them feels like cruelty. In fact, much as I love ice-cream of all varieties, in this case, the absence of extra fat allows the chocolate to take center stage, making for a purer, more intense cocoa hit. If chocolate ice-cream is best licked from the bottom of a leaky cone on a sunny seaside afternoon, chocolate sorbet belongs in an elegant quenelle at the end of dinner – two different, but equally lovely pleasures. Not often seen in the shops (fortunately), it’s happily very easy to make, assuming you have an ice-cream machine (sorry).
The most significant difference between the recipes I try comes in the means by which they achieve their chocolate flavour. Some, such as the much-recommended sorbet from David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop, use three times as much chocolate as cocoa powder; some, such as the one in Hannah Kaminsky’s book, Vegan Desserts, use nearly twice as much cocoa as chocolate; and others use either chocolate alone (Linda Tubby’s Ices Italia) or just cocoa (The River Cafe).
Chocolate contains cocoa powder, of course, mixed with cocoa butter, while cocoa powder also contains a small amount of cocoa butter – which one you opt for depends on what sort of sorbet you’re after. Lebovitz and Tubby’s have a sweet, crowd-pleasing richness, while the more cocoa-heavy examples have a simpler but more powerful flavour. If you’re looking for a vegan substitute for chocolate ice-cream (and don’t want to substitute alternative dairy), then I’d recommend using Lebovitz’s excellent recipe, but if you want something distinctly different, light in texture and heavy on taste, I think cocoa is the way to go.
One of the hardest things about any ice, however, is getting the texture right – Lebovitz uses a blender to homogenise the mixture before freezing, while Morfudd Richards and the River Cafe pass the sorbet mix through a sieve to remove any lumps. With regard to cocoa specifically, it’s also important not only to bloom it in boiling water for the best possible flavour, but to give it time to “cook out”, as the River Cafe’s recipe makes clear, to prevent a powdery, chalky consistency in the finished product. Do not neglect Lebovitz’s tip to use the largest pan you have, either, because, as I found to my cost, it really does boil quite enthusiastically.
I say sugars, because although everyone uses standard caster sugar, some deploy it in unusual ways – particularly important here, because, as Max Falkowitz notes on Serious Eats, “sugar doesn’t just sweeten sorbet – it’s also responsible for sorbet’s structure”, it lowers the freezing point of the water in which it’s dissolved. Richards uses a partially inverted stock syrup in her book Lola’s Ice Creams & Sundaes, which sounds complicated, but is, in fact, just a sugar syrup with a little cream of tartar added, and liquid glucose, which inhibits the formation of large ice or sucrose crystals for a smoother end result. It also adds body and lowers the freezing point, making the sorbet easier to scoop – but, crucially, it doesn’t taste as good with cocoa as alcohol, which is your other option to stop your sorbet turning to stone in the freezer. Richards suggests vodka and the River Cafe brandy, in unnervingly generous quantities. I like the scoopability, and the flavor combination, but I’m going to reduce the amount, so there’s just a hint of booze alongside the bittersweet cocoa. If you’d prefer to avoid it altogether, give glucose syrup a try instead.
Martha Rose Shulman in the New York Times adds honey as well as sugar, but my testers and I can’t taste it in the finished sorbet, and it doesn’t seem to have helped soften it. Kaminsky, meanwhile, bases her sorbet on a caramel, rather than a simple sugar syrup, which gives it a pleasantly toffeeish complexity that proves popular with testers – like a very grown-up frozen Rolo.
Interestingly, many restaurants (including another version from the River Cafe), include dairy, usually milk, and sometimes egg white in their sorbet recipes – I decide not to try any of these, because I think most people expect their sorbets to be dairy- free, but I assume it adds body, and is no doubt as delicious as all chocolate ices seem to be.
Though I’ve chosen to stick with the classic vanilla, chocolate goes so well with other flavors that you can get quite creative with the basic recipe below. Shulman includes peppermint essence and steeps a mint teabag in the mixture, in homage to a dessert at one of her favorite Parisian restaurants, Au Trou Gascon, which does, as she says, infuse “the thrill and depth of any dark chocolate dessert … with a light, refreshing quality”, and Linda Tubby uses a proportion of chilli chocolate to add a subtle heat to her sorbet. If you have a yen to experiment – with orange zest, perhaps, or ground cardamom or coffee – feel free, but bear in mind that flavors are dulled by freezing, so you may wish to add a little more than tastes wise at room temperature.
Much of the pleasure of this recipe is, in my opinion, the silky texture, so I think you really do need an ice-cream maker for it, sorry. (And if you want to give it a try with the still freezing method, please let me know how it works out.)
Perfect chocolate sorbet
prep 5 min
Cook 15 min
cool and chill 2hr+
Churn about 20 min
100g cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
30ml brandy or golden rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
Put the cocoa, sugar, salt and water in a tall pan (it will bubble up, so the type of pan is important), stir to combine, then put on a medium-high heat and bring to a boil, whisking, until smooth . Leave to bubble away for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t catch and burn.
Stir in the alcohol, then take the pan off the heat and add the vanilla extract. Leave the mix to cool slightly, pass through a fine sieve, leave to cool completely, then chill thoroughly for at least two hours.
Once chilled, whisk again until smooth, then churn in an ice-cream maker until smooth and frozen – depending on your machine, you may then need to freeze it for a couple of more hours before use, or you may be able to serve it immediately Once frozen, store in a sealed container in the freezer, and remove at least 15 minutes before serving, to give it a chance to soften.
Chocolate sorbet: chocolate ice-cream’s more serious cousin, or its more boring one? What do you like to pair with it (poached pears are, in fact, a lovely match), and if you’ve eaten a truly memorable example, tell us where!
Felicity Cloake’s new book, Red Sauce Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey, is published by HarperCollins at £16.99. To order a copy for £14.78, go to guardianbookshop.com