Two summers ago, a friend and I met for coffee and ice cream. She got a scoop of vegan mint chip - and a whole-milk cappuccino.
I just like the vegan version better, she explained, offering me a bite.
Whether the vegan mint chip was better than its dairy iteration is debatable. But what was clear was that it was absolutely delicious: silky, creamy and very smooth.
It was also totally superior to the chalky, soy-based Tofutti Cuties my lactose-avoiding friends got stuck with at the end of every summer braai, for lack of a better option.
Happily, this is no longer the case. The past few years have been a glorious time for vegans and others who forgo dairy.
And as the demand for non-dairy explodes, so does the number of products on the market, including a slew of new non-dairy ice creams, yoghurt and cheeses, along with the various nut and plant milks used to make them.
Even better, many of these new products taste great, which is a boon whether you strictly avoid dairy at all costs, or just want to expand your creamy horizons.
Supermarket shelves are now filled with litres of plant-based milks. Cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, oat, flax, rice, quinoa and hemp varieties have joined the ranks of coconut, soy and almond milks.
But with so many options, which plant-based milk, or combination of milks, makes the best home-made non-dairy ice cream?
A few years ago, I experimented with ratios of cream, milk and eggs to create a master recipe for a custard ice cream base. So it seemed only natural that I give non-dairy ice cream the same thorough treatment, creating an adaptable base, along with a grid of ways to flavour it.
But even before I began my testing, I had some experience making non-dairy ice creams, most of them relying on readily available, relatively inexpensive coconut milk. With its high-fat content and creamy texture, coconut milk (or, better still, coconut cream) is a great substitute for dairy.
The downside is that the coconut milk has a pronounced coconut flavour, even when it’s blended with intense ingredients like chocolate, peanut butter or raspberry.
If you don’t mind the flavour, coconut cream is a great way to go. To mellow the flavour of coconut milk or cream, the key is to combine it with a different non-dairy milk. I ended up doing just that in my master recipe for a non-dairy base.
After testing all the available milk options, I concluded that hemp and cashew milk make the best partners for the coconut. Mildly flavoured and very creamy, hemp and cashew milks are relatively easy to find at health food stores and supermarkets.
Use either in combination with the coconut milk. I slightly preferred the hemp milk to the cashew milk because it’s just a bit richer, and ended up dismissing almond, rice, quinoa, flax and oat milks, which I did not find rich enough, and macadamia, because its flavour was too intense.
But play around with the base, and customise it to your taste.