I went to Garden of Eden and bought a jar of Szechuan Pepper. The jar read, "THIS IS NOT A PEPPER CORN WE GROWN TO KNOW. IT IS A CHINESE SPICE KNOWN AS RED PEPPER CORN." Hmmm. Once home, I opened it up and took a tentative whiff. It was surprisingly mild, with an almost floral aroma. I tasted a peppercorn. It wasn't terribly hot. It was even a little sweet. Wikipedia confirmed my impressions:
"Sichuan pepper has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black or white pepper, or chili peppers, but has slight lemony overtones and creates in the mouth a kind of tingly numbness (caused by its 3% of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) that sets the stage for these hot spices."
Following a recipe from The Perfect Scoop, I crushed three tablespoons of the peppercorns, and let them steep in a pot with warm milk, cream, sugar and the zest of four oranges for an hour. Halfway through the steeping, my curiosity got the better of me, and I peeked in to see how things were going. What a mistake! I was assaulted with the most intense vapor I've ever encountered in my kitchen. I gulped for air. I pictured Fork coming home and finding me passed out on the kitchen floor, clutching the jar bearing the weird description. After a few seconds I was fine, but I definitely do not recommend sniffing this stuff while it's steeping. Unless perhaps you have a severe headcold. But even then...
Anyway, after an hour I drained out the peppercorns, and mixed in six egg yolks. I stirred this over low heat until a custard formed, then combined this with the remaining cream, and set it over an ice bath until it was cold. Finally, I churned it. The result? One of the most interesting, delightful ice creams I've ever tasted. It's creamy and citrus-y, with just a hint of heat that you feel on the roof of your mouth after you've swallowed the ice cream. My office pals swooned over this ice cream, lapping it up despite their initial raised eyebrows when I told them the ingredients.
Szechuan pepper: coming to a Baskin Robbins near you.--S