Cool Down This Summer with Ice Pops
As a kid growing up in the swampy heat of southwest Florida, my favorite “recipe” was for ice pops. By “recipe,” I mean freezing whatever liquid was at hand—usually orange juice but occasionally, if my mother was feeling indulgent, Kool-Aid—in an ice cube tray and adding toothpicks for sticks just before it froze.
Such projects were an exercise in delayed gratification: twist the ice-cube tray to release your treats too soon and the whole thing collapsed in a soupy mess. But if you waited the requisite number of hours, your patience was rewarded. What had previously been at best a boring drink was transformed into nothing less than dessert. And not just any dessert, but a dessert that delivered both the delights of licking to consume it and, in the humble toothpick, its very own built-in delivery device. These crude homemade ice pops of my childhood were more assembly than cooking, but to me the transformation was nothing short of alchemy.
I was reminded of the magic of ice pops on a visit to the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market one Sunday where entrepreneur and pastry chef Tiffany Buchanan sells Freezer Monkeys, her Ventura company’s line of frozen treats that is considerably more sophisticated than my childhood endeavors. (This summer, she’ll also be at the Calabasas Certified Farmers’ Market on Saturdays.)
Alongside her standard assortment, which includes Blueberry Orange Blossom, Mexican Chocolate, and Caramelized Pineapple, Buchanan offers a new flavor each week exclusively at the market, inspired by what she’s found at farmers’ markets throughout the county. (This spring’s Sweet Corn and Blueberry pop, for example.)
She considers Ojai’s farmers’ market a sort of laboratory for experimenting with new ideas and ultra-seasonal flavors, like the creamy citrus Creamsicle-esque one she makes during Ojai Pixie Month each spring.
“It’s a place where I can let the creativity flow and change things up … and I don’t have to deal with all the special packaging for my grocery store accounts,” Buchanan explains. This summer she’s promising adventures in stone fruit, including a possible revival of her apricot goat cheese pop.
When I asked Buchanan about her own childhood memories of ice pops while growing up in Santa Barbara, she gave a surprising answer: “I didn’t get to eat ice pops growing up,” she says. “In our household … it was no sodas,no candy, no junk food, never anything artificial. It was always 100% natural and dessert was a piece of fruit.”
I couldn’t help thinking Buchanan’s career as a pastry chef and now ice pop entrepreneur was in part a reaction to this aspect of her upbringing, but she pointed out that it’s quite the opposite. Her mother’s emphasis on eating naturally and healthfully shines through in Freezer Monkeys, both through the use of whole fruit—a Strawberry Buttermilk pop counts as one of your five-a-day—and low sugar content, which has the added benefit of allowing the ice pops to freeze harder.
Buchanan has also been known to eschew typical fruit flavors altogether, like making a three-layer veggie pop sweetened with agave syrup: carrots, orange and ginger on top; beets in the middle; and cucumbers, lime and lemongrass on the bottom. This layering of flavors works particularly well in an ice pop where, thanks to the low fat content, more flavor can come through as it melts in your mouth.
Rachel Main Holst, executive chef and vice president at Main Course California catering in Ventura, knows a thing or two about cocktail-ice pop mashups. As a young adult living in New Orleans, the steamy climate and laissez les bons temps rouler attitude found perfect expression in the alcohol pops she made for herself and friends.
Favorite flavors included chocolate pudding with a hint of Kahlua or Frangelico and anything piña colada. These days she’d probably try a caramelize-y piña colada version, she says, using caramelized goat milk cajeta with coconut, lime and pineapple.
Ice pops were, she notes, “the perfect solution for leftover daiquiris.” Though if there’s too much alcohol, which affects freezing, you’ll need to add more fruit juice, she clarifies.
Holst advises that blackberries, cherries and blueberries pair best with a red wine like Merlot, which I suspect is a use of the much-maligned grape that even Miles from the movie Sideways could get behind. She also suggests a pairing of grapes and mint with Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Whether using red or white, reduce the wine to about a quarter of the original quantity to make a syrup. When working with hard liquor, Holst suggests a shot for every 1 to 1½ cups of fruit juice.
Armed with her advice and Buchanan’s recipe for Fruity Sangria Ice Pops (on the next page) I decided to try my hand at ice pops for the first time since I was a kid.
The result was a far cry from the orange-juice-cube-on-a-toothpick of my childhood.
As I crunched my way through a fruit bomb of apples and grapes, I realized I had discovered both an imaginative way to dispose of a bottle of Beaujolais and a near perfect conclusion to a summer barbecue with friends.
STICK TO IT
Tools of the Trade: Buchanan recommends stainless steel molds like those from Onyx, and her second choice is a silicone mold. For sticks Holst says it’s hard to beat the good old-fashioned wood variety, particularly with alcohol pops that need something to cling to.
Flying Flavors: While a watermelon or cantaloupe pop may sound tempting, Buchanan advises against using melons in ice pops because their high water content makes it challenging to get vibrant flavor without being too icy. This summer look for stone fruits like cherries, peaches and apricots instead. Holst recommends adding a dash of almond extract to stone fruit bases to “kick it up a notch.” For strawberry pops she says that a dash of ground coriander or ginger will do the same trick.
Keys to Consistency: Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but with ice pops it’s everything. Holst swears by the magical powers of xanthan gum, a stabilizer sold in many grocery stores. For every 2 cups of ice pop base, add a scant ¼- to ½-teaspoon of xanthan gum. Coconut milk or raw cashews that have been soaked and then puréed are another way to add creaminess to pops.
Lovely Layers: For layered creations, pour one-quarter to one-third of the mixture into the base of the mold and let it freeze before adding the next portion. Use the same approach when working with an ice pop mixture that has chunks of fruit or other ingredients in it so the chunks don’t all fall to the bottom of the mold.
Sugar Substitutes: Agave syrup works really well, says Buchanan, adding that the pops don’t taste as sweet. Substitute it one-for-one for sugar in ice pop recipes. Maple syrup with creamy pops is delicious, adds Holst. Honey is also a good option with strawberry or creamy pops not made with chocolate, she says. Start with about a one-to-one substitution. Because honey and maple syrup are a bit sweeter than sugar, Holst says cooks may want to use a little less.
Chef Rachel Main Holst shares a chef ’s secret on how to make ice pops and other frozen treats come out nice and smooth every time. It involves science and a whole egg. If the base is too dense, it may not fully freeze, she says. To test the mixture’s density, put a cleaned, raw whole egg in the base to be frozen. The egg should float in the mix, not touching the bottom of the bowl. You want a nickel-size shell “island” popping up from the mixture. If it’s larger, add more fruit juice or cream (the lighter part of the mixture). If it is smaller, add more of the denser molecules.