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Meredith Kurtzman (1971 Illustration) is always one step ahead of herself in the kitchen, setting up the next part of her recipe while still working on the previous one. Her career path, on the other hand, has not been so meticulously laid out. The daughter of the late acclaimed cartoonist and former SVA faculty member Harvey Kurtzman, she grew up drawing but “just not working hard enough to get good,” she says.
After jumping around majors at SVA—“I was in advertising for half a year. Ha! That was ridiculous”—she ended up freelancing in textile design, then fabric printing. She enjoyed the work, but by the mid-1990s, opportunities were scarce, so she enrolled in culinary school—“not a fancy one”—and found an internship at Verbena, a praised, but now closed, season-focused restaurant near Union Square. “One thing led to another,” she says, and in 2003 Kurtzman landed at the acclaimed Otto Enoteca e Pizzeria, near Washington Square. After some training in Italy, she went on to lead the gelato-focused dessert program there until 2015 and became known within the industry, according to Eater, as “the greatest gelato maker in New York.” The Wall Street Journal has called her a master.
Semi-retired, Kurtzman now consults and develops recipes for restaurants and brands while working on new endeavors in her decidedly diffident way. Not long ago, she welcomed us into her parents’ 1920s home in Mount Vernon, New York, to demonstrate how anyone with an ice-cream maker—or just two metal bowls and a lot of ice—can make one quart of her favorite gelato flavor, salted caramel, in their own kitchen.
Meredith Kurtzman's Salted Caramel Gelato
Put the inner container of an ice-cream maker in the freezer for at least 24 hours, until it’s “frozen stiff.” Meanwhile, take a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot, add ½ cup sugar and, bit by bit, just enough water to form a texture like wet sand, brushing down any errant crystals into the mix with a damp brush or paper towel. Place the pot over medium heat and do not stir the sugar.
“You want to be ready with 2½ cups of whole milk when the sugar starts to burn,” Kurtzman says. “It can go from ready to burnt in a few seconds, and over-burnt does not taste good.” While this process seems daunting, she assures that anyone can do it. “My first boss told me, ‘Don’t be scared of caramel, of cooking it too much.’ If you don’t cook it enough it’ll have no flavor.” Plus, the “perfect doneness” can be a personal preference. “I like a teeny taste of burnt,” she admits.
When the sugar turns a deep mahogany, just barely starting to smoke, remove the pot from the stove and carefully pour in the milk. The temperature of the melted sugar at this point is around 385°F, and “caramel burn hurts,” Kurtzman says. Whisk the mixture. Once everything has settled, return the pot to the burner, reheating the milk slowly over medium heat and allowing any bits of sugar that hardened at the sudden addition of cold fluid to melt again.
As the milk heats, set up a strainer and an ice bath in the sink for later. Separate 9 egg yolks, discarding the whites. In a heatproof bowl, whisk the yolks and 3 tablespoons of sugar together. Once the milk is steaming, temper the eggs by gradually ladling a bit more than half of the hot milk into the heatproof bowl, so they slowly heat up without curdling. Next, pour the egg mixture into the pot and gently stir it over low heat until it is a slightly thickened custard at about 185°F, using a kitchen thermometer to take the temperature.
Remove the pot from the heat, strain the mixture into a metal bowl and put the bowl in the ice bath. “In pastry, you always want to strain everything,” she says. “You don’t want any stray yolks—too much of that, and it will taste like scrambled eggs.” Stir in the remaining ingredients: 1 cup of heavy cream, ½ teaspoon of kosher salt, ½ cup of condensed milk and either ½ of a vanilla bean, split and scraped, or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract or paste.
“They always say that pastry is really precise, and it is, but there’s a little leeway.” On this occasion, she reluctantly uses measuring spoons rather than eyeballing it. “It’s just one more thing I have to wash.”
Once everything is mixed, cover the finished base and leave it in the refrigerator to chill overnight (or for up to a week). After it has chilled, fit the ice-cream maker with the now-frozen inner container, pour in the base and let it churn for about 30 minutes, until it thickens and loses its shine.
It is possible, yet much more difficult, to do this part by hand. “Some guys that I worked with used to make sorbet—they’d put a bowl [with the base in it] inside a big bowl of ice and they’d spin it really fast,” Kurtzman says. “It takes a long time to do it that way.” She notes that the crew at La Newyorkina, a beloved Mexican sweets company in New York, also uses this technique.
As the machine works, check frequently to make sure the base does not over-churn. If that were to happen, the fats would separate from the water-based ingredients and harden into clumps of what is, essentially, butter. At that point, “it’s garbage,” Kurtzman says. Texture has always been the most important thing to her; she wants her gelato not just to taste good, but to feel good in the eater’s mouth. “That’s why I don’t put chunks of stuff in my ice cream. I just like that smooth feeling.”
That said, she is not wholly opposed to crunch. At Otto, she created a sort of sundae, which she called a coppetta (Italian for “cup”), featuring a couple of flavors of gelato topped with brittle or some other contrasting ingredient. She is also not a strict traditionalist when it comes to flavors—diners “went nuts,” she says, for her olive-oil gelato topped with sea salt.
But Kurtzman does have her maxims: She prefers that gelato not be too cold. “When something is less cold, you can taste it better. The colder it is, the more it freezes your tongue.” She is also leery of health-conscious options. Recently, she tested some recipes for a new ice-cream brand, one of many that sell low-calorie pints that allow eaters to finish the whole thing in one sitting, guilt-free. “I’m always dubious about that—if you’re having a reasonable serving, I say go to hell and have good ice cream.”
When the gelato has thickened, chill it again in the freezer for about an hour, until it sets. When that last hour of waiting is up, use a rubber spatula to scoop it out and serve, ideally at about 38°F. “If it’s hard, let it sit out and soften,” she says.
Kurtzman likes to scrape the spatula across the side of the dish, creating a perfect gelato wave. “I like that look instead of a boring little scoop,” she says, but the technique takes some practice. “I used to try and teach my assistants to get it right. Some of them got it, but some of them….”
The finished gelato is delightfully sweet, balanced with the caramel’s slightly burnt edge and hint of contrasting salt, making for a beautiful overall flavor. “This is so much better than an eggless version I tried recently,” she says. “I should stick with what I know.”
Lately Kurtzman has been experimenting with patternmaking again, but this time independently. She has taken up photography and, using her photos of pasta, vegetables and plants, she creates designs and transfers them onto pillows and plates that she hopes to sell one day. “When I go to craft shows, I feel like everything looks alike,” she says. “Everyone is learning the same technology. I just have to find a way to keep a unique point of view.” She also hosts the occasional sold-out pop-up dinner at Archestratus Books + Foods, in Brooklyn, taking multiple subway trips from her Soho apartment, where she has lived since the 1970s, to bring her supplies to the store.
Though she misses some of the people that she met in the business, she is glad to have left the daily grind of a professional kitchen behind. “I started to learn all this stuff in my 40s. Restaurants are a young person’s game, with all that craziness. It’s not in my personality, really.” She laughs. “I don’t know how I ended up doing that.”
A version of this article appears in the spring 2019 Visual Arts Journal.