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’Tis the season for Vinnie’s sought-after honeysuckle ice cream.
to transport you to a different time—eliciting fond memories from the past. A scent-imental experience, if you will. So when Vinnie’s Steakhouse & Tavern chef/GM Tom Armstrong came upon a honeysuckle patch while walking his dog near Chavis Park in 2011, he was immediately transported to his halcyon days of youth, scouring for honeysuckles in the woods for those prized drops of nectar—what would become the star ingredient for his now-famed seasonal ice cream at Vinnie’s.
“It just had this effect I’ve only experienced a couple times in my life, where a smell or a taste or even a song on the radio hits you in a way that’s almost as close to time travel as you get,” Armstrong recalls.
Armstrong visited Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill a couple of years prior to try Bill Smith’s honeysuckle sorbet (the longtime treasured cafe has since shuttered temporarily). “It was a unique thing,” says Armstrong, “and what really got my attention was the fact he goes out and picks the honeysuckle himself. I thought that was a cool thing he does… and maybe one day I’d have the time to [recreate it].”
Fast-forward to spring 2011, and after stumbling on that blossoming honeysuckle patch, Armstrong put together a kit to collect the sweet blooms. Not wanting to copy Smith’s sorbet, the chef decided to try his hand at a honeysuckle ice cream.
“It took some trial and error, but once I got it right, I knew I was onto something really special,” says the sweet cream visionary. “I was so excited about it. Anybody that came in [to Vinnie’s], I was like you gotta try this ice cream.”
Armstrong does his honeysuckle-hunting research by simply riding his bike on the greenway (yes, for real). Some of his top spots include Shelley Lake and Lake Lynn, but he changes it up yearly. “I have to move around a little bit,” says the honeysuckle hunter. “That makes it a little more fun for me. Every year it’s like a quest.”
For peak freshness, he always avoids areas with a lot of car exhaust or sprayed pesticides. And, like with most things, there’s minor risk involved. “Every year I get poison ivy,” he laughs, “but it’s worth it.”
On an average morning, he’ll pick about 8 quarts worth of flowers. No small feat! After collecting the most brightly colored yellow blooms Mother Earth has to offer, Armstrong takes the honeysuckles back to the restaurant and lays them all out on a pan, picking out any leaves and other foreign objects.
He then places them in a big bucket and crushes them with a wooden spoon, covers the honeysuckles with heavy cream, and lets them sit for two to three days. The key is to use equal parts flowers to heavy cream, he notes.
Double the Syrup
Serving up spring in a bowl for over a decade now, Armstrong scoops his highly anticipated creamy concoction at Vinnie’s with strawberry shortcake made from ripe local strawberries (natch), topped with a homemade honeysuckle syrup. For those feeling extra sweet, the dessert pairs perfectly with the bartender’s honeysuckle cocktail—also utilizing that housemade syrup.
Make Your Own
Every year, as soon as guests get that first whiff of honeysuckle in the air, they immediately start calling Vinnie’s to see when that delish honeysuckle ice cream will hit the menu. “For two or three weeks, I just go kind of crazy with it and make as much as I can to keep up with demand,” says Armstrong. Clearly, it won’t last long, so you better stock up while you can—or try to make it at home with the recipe below (!).
Honeysuckle Ice Cream (makes just over 1 quart)
- 1 qt. honeysuckle flowers (preferably golden yellow ones)
- 1 qt. heavy cream
- 12 egg yolks
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- Spread flowers on a sheet pan and remove any leaves or twigs.
- Place flowers in a container (at least 2 quarts) and mash vigorously with a wooden spoon.
- Cover with heavy cream; refrigerate; and let sit for at least two days.
- Strain flowers from the cream, pressing on the flowers with a ladle or spoon. Place cream in a large
saucepan and bring to a simmer.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar.
- When the cream begins to simmer, remove from heat and slowly whisk into the egg/sugar mixture.
- Return the mixture to the stovetop.
- Using a rubber spatula, stir the mixture over high heat, scraping the bottom of the pan constantly.
- The custard will start to thicken as it gets hot. Once it reaches 180 F, remove from heat; strain through a
fine-mesh strainer; and cool completely.
- Process in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s operating instructions.
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