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Jan. 20, 2021

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Will artisan popsicles finally dethrone trendy cupcakes?

The Columbian
Published:

Could popsicles finally be the food trend that pushes cupcakes off their throne?

They have all the right ingredients: Childhood favorite? Check. Reinvented for grown-up tastes? Check. (Think strawberry-balsamic instead of strawberries and cream.) Portion control? Check. Popsicles even have one thing cupcakes don’t: They’re a sure way to beat the monstrous heat.

They’re also everywhere. There is La Newyorkina and People’s Pops in New York; Meltdown Popsicles in New Orleans; and Sol Pops, with flavors such as sugar snap pea with orange, in Portland. In the Washington, D.C., area, the Dairy Godmother in Alexandria, Va., is turning out dozens of seasonal flavors such as apricot-saffron-pistachio, damson plum with toasted almond, and sour cherry with cardamom. Pleasant Pops, a start-up that sells at the Mount Pleasant (D.C.) Farmers Market, is building a portfolio that already includes peach-ginger and watermelon-cucumber.

Bartenders are adding versions to their summer menus. You’ll find boozy pops at Potenza and Cafe Saint-Ex in D.C. and at Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve, where Todd Thrasher offers an elaborate layered bomb pop with cranberry cosmopolitan, tum yummy (coconut, ginger, lemon grass and ginger liqueur) and blackberry rickey.

Many artisan popsicle makers are inspired by paletas, Mexican ice pops often sold from street carts, that come in a rainbow of flavors: strawberry, mango, lime, cucumber and watermelon. For Liz Davis, founder of the Dairy Godmother, the inspiration was a high-tech popsicle machine.

She first saw it in January 2007 while attending an ice cream course at Penn State. (January is to ice cream makers what August is to the rest of Americans.) Made in Brazil, it looks like a small Jacuzzi bathtub, but instead of getting hot, it gets very, very cold. It holds a mixture of water and glycol, essentially food-grade antifreeze, which cools to 13 degrees below zero and can make a batch of 88 in about eight minutes. The resulting pops are smooth and shiny, without the ice crystals that are the bane of homemade versions. “I was completely captivated,” Davis remembers.

It took several years for Davis to find one of the machines and import it to the United States. A veteran restaurant pastry chef before she opened her shop in 2001, Davis, 51, had already tackled frozen custard, sorbet and chocolate-dipped truffles. In early July, she was at last able to begin producing popsicles — or, as she likes to say, crossing a “new frozen frontier.”

Every day, the Dairy Godmother sells seven flavors, each priced at $2.36. Davis already has several dozen flavors in rotation. Some are inspired by the seasons: watermelon-mint, with a few seeds whimsically suspended inside, and boysenberry with frozen custard. But she has also been playing with popular drinks from around the globe, such as Vietnamese iced coffee, mango lassi and Moroccan mint tea.

One of the benefits of making popsicles, Davis says, is that she can freeze crunchy surprises inside them, something that’s harder to do with ice cream or sorbet that must be churned. For example, she has long made a buttermilk sherbet, a take on lemon- and nutmeg-scented buttermilk pie. For the popsicle version, Davis plans to use a similar base. But she will add bits of chopped up pie crust. Already, she’s adding whole berries, candied hibiscus and chiffonade of herbs such as mint or basil to fruit pops. The fast freezing means nothing gets mushy or loses its flavor.

The machine cost $7,000, a big investment for an inexpensive summer treat. But Davis believes popsicles have staying power. Already, she is selling them for weddings and corporate events, and this fall, she plans to open a small store called Pop Culture.

Fall flavors might include pumpkin, cranberry-coriander-tangerine and mulled cider.

Making frozen desserts was entirely new to Pleasant Pops founders Roger Horowitz and Brian Sykora, both 25. The two met during their freshman year at the University of North Carolina and had long talked about starting some sort of business together. In 2008, Sykora invited Horowitz, who was then living in Nevada, to come to D.C. to launch an artisan popsicle stand.

Horowitz had grown up eating paletas from the Mexican grocery near his home in New York. But neither business partner had cooking experience. Over the course of a year, they experimented with about 70 flavors: Cucumber-jalapeño and carrot-apple-ginger made the cut; anything with beets did not. “They weren’t horrible,” says Horowitz. “But it’s a weird taste. People don’t want to be eating frozen beets.”

Pleasant Pops sources most of its ingredients locally. Milk and cream come from the Trickling Springs Creamery in Pennsylvania; its fruit comes from the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, where Horowitz and Sykora began hawking their $2.50 pops July 3. Each week they sell three flavors, and they add a new one each week. The latest include watermelon with black pepper; and blackberry, basil and cream.

Chefs, not surprisingly, have picked up on the trend. In D.C., Birch Barley’s Tiffany MacIsaac, who has a penchant for childhood desserts, serves a pudding pop as part of her “cookies and confections” plate. At Belga Cafe, chef-owner Bart Vandaele offers a cherry beer pop with a chocolate dessert plate. Cafe Dupont sells green apple, raspberry and lemon-ginger push pops on its summer sampler.

These aren’t for kids

Bartenders, too, have a case of popsicle fever. Potenza offers a $5 pop made with limoncello, grappa and a dash of lemon bitters, and Saint-Ex has an elderflower “poptail.”

For Restaurant Eve’s Thrasher, popsicles are more practical than populist. “If you put regular ice in a cocktail, as it melts, the cocktail changes,” Thrasher explains. “If you have an ice with a flavor, as it melts, it imparts more flavor rather than diluting it.”

For some drinks, Thrasher makes a popsicle that is the same as the cocktail. As the ice melts, the cocktail is replenished. In others, he uses complementary flavors. The gazpacho cocktail at Alexandria speak-easy PX, for example, comes with a cucumber popsicle made with cucumber juice, lime and salt.

There is no practical reason for Thrasher’s bomb pop, which was inspired by layered wedding cakes and, of course, the famous one from Good Humor. But not every popsicle needs to be justified: “It’s hot outside,” he says. “And pops are great when it’s hot outside.”

Plum with Honey and Cardamom Popsicles

Makes 8 popsicles (scant half-cup capacity)

The taste of cardamom in these tart and refreshing popsicles is more pronounced after the mixture has been thoroughly chilled. Adapted from Liz Davis of the Dairy Godmother in Alexandria, Va.

1 1/4 pounds plums, preferably damson

Water, as needed

Sugar (optional)

4 whole green cardamom pods (may substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)

1/2 cup honey

Combine the plums and about 1/2 cup of water in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Cover and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the plums have softened. Add water as needed to prevent scorching. Transfer to a bowl; when the plums are cool enough to handle, discard the pits. Transfer the fruit to the blender and puree until smooth. Taste; if the plums are too tart, add a tablespoon or two of sugar if desired. The yield should be 2 cups; if you fall short, add the syrupy cooking water as needed. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid.

Combine 1 cup of water and the cardamom pods in a small saucepan over high heat; bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let steep for at least one hour. Discard the pods.

Add the honey to the cardamom water and stir to dissolve, then add the mixture to the plum puree; mix well. Cover and refrigerate for about two hours, until thoroughly chilled, then pour into popsicle molds of your choice and freeze for about five hours, until firm.

To serve, dip the molds briefly into lukewarm water so the popsicles release easily.

Per half-cup serving: 100 calories, 0 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 24 g sugar

Grilled Pineapple-Pink Peppercorn Popsicles

Makes 12 popsicles

These frozen treats have bold, knockout flavor and aroma. Pink peppercorns are available at grocery stores. Adapted from Liz Davis of the Dairy Godmother in Alexandria, Va.

1 very ripe whole pineapple (about 3 pounds)

1 cup sugar, plus more for grilling the pineapple

1 1/2 teaspoons pink peppercorns

1 cup water

3 cups unsweetened pineapple

juice

Freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 F). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about four or five seconds. Lightly coat a grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.

Meanwhile, trim off the pineapple top and skin. Cut the fruit in half lengthwise and coat the cut sides lightly with sugar. Place on the grill cut sides down and cook for about 15 minutes, turning, until there is charring and the fruit has softened and cooked through. Transfer to a plate to cool, then cut out and discard the core from each half. Cut away any excessively charred areas of fruit. (The char is supposed to deliver a slightly smoky flavor.)

Transfer the fruit to a blender and add the pink peppercorns. Puree until smooth.

Combine the cup of sugar and the water in a microwave-safe container. Microwave on high as needed to dissolve the sugar. Transfer to a large container with a tight-fitting lid. Add the pineapple juice, lemon juice and the grilled pineapple puree; mix well. Cover and refrigerate for one hour, until thoroughly chilled, then pour into popsicle molds. Freeze until firm.

To serve, dip the molds briefly into lukewarm water so the popsicles release easily.

Per serving: 150 calories, 0 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 33 g sugar

Pudding Pops

Makes 16 popsicles (half-cup capacity)

The smooth, chocolaty pudding used to make these pops is great to eat on its own, not frozen — just in case you run out of popsicle molds. Miniature versions of these are served at Birch Barley in Washington. From Tiffany MacIsaac, pastry chef at Birch Barley.

3 cups whole milk

3 cups heavy cream

3 large eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature

9 ounces dark (bittersweet) chocolate, finely chopped

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoon salt

Have eight or 16 half-cup popsicle molds at hand.

Combine the milk, cream and eggs in a large saucepan and whisk until smooth. Place over medium heat.

Combine the sugar, cocoa and cornstarch in a bowl, then whisk the mixture into the saucepan. Once bubbles start to form at the edges, cook for about seven minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching (cornstarch sinks to the bottom and can burn easily). The mixture will form a shiny, soft pudding. Remove from heat.

Whisk in the butter and then the chocolate, mixing until well incorporated and smooth. Add salt to taste; mix well. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, pushing it through with a flexible spatula. The pudding should be smooth; the yield should be about 8 cups. Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for about three hours, until completely chilled.

At this point you can spoon the pudding into popsicle molds and freeze until fully set. If you’re working with eight molds, repeat the process after the pops have frozen.

To unmold, run the molds briefly under warm water so the pudding pops dislodge easily. Serve immediately, or return to the freezer.

VARIATION: For an optional finishing touch, melt dark (semisweet or bittersweet) chocolate in a bowl set over, but not touching, barely simmering water in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir until smooth, and remove from the heat. Dip each frozen pudding pop into the chocolate, gently shaking off any excess. The chocolate coating should set fairly quickly because the pop is so cold.

Per half-cup serving: 300 calories, 4 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 27 g sugar

Apricot-Elderflower Popsicles

Makes 6 popsicles

Delightfully clean-tasting and tart, with a hint of sweetness. Although the simple syrup is listed as optional, our tester thought this recipe worked best with the addition of 3/4 cup. This popsicle has a fair amount of sweetness, but if desired, add simple syrup to taste. To make simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a slow rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for five minutes. Transfer to a heatproof container and let cool to room temperature. From Tiffany MacIssac, pastry chef at Birch Barley in Washington.

15 ripe apricots, cut in half and pitted

Water

St-Germain elderflower

liqueur

3/4 cup simple syrup or as needed

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Place the apricot halves cut sides down on one or two large rimmed baking sheets. Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until softened; the time will depend on the ripeness of the fruit.

If it’s easy to do, peel off and discard the skins. Transfer the warm apricot halves to a blender and puree until smooth. Add just enough water to loosen the puree a bit. Taste for the desired strength of apricot flavor. (Don’t worry about using too much water.)

Strain the apricot puree, discarding any solids. Add the liqueur and simple syrup to taste.

Pour into molds of your choice and freeze until firm.

To serve, dip the molds briefly into lukewarm water so the popsicles release easily.

Per serving: 120 calories, 1 g protein, 29 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 26 g sugar

Todd Thrasher’s Bomb Pops

Makes 6 to 8 popsicles

Three layers, all great flavors. Rocket-shaped popsicle molds are available at Sur La Table. From Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve and PX Lounge in Alexandria, Va.

For the raspberry layer:

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup packed mint leaves (from 10 stems)

1 cup fresh raspberries

1 1/4 ounces vodka

For the lemonade layer:

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 3 large lemons)

1 1/2 to 2 cups cold water

1 1/4 ounces nonsmoky silver tequila, such as Patron or Don Julio

For the blueberry layer:

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon dried culinary lavender (or 2 tablespoons fresh lavender)

1 cup fresh blueberries, stemmed

1 1/4 ounces rum

For the raspberry layer: Combine the water and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat. Add the mint and steep for four minutes. Strain.

Combine the raspberries, mint mixture and vodka in a blender. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding any solids, into a liquid measuring cup to yield 1 1/2 cups.

For the lemonade layer: Combine the water and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat. Add the rosemary and steep for four minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding any solids.

Add the lemon juice and sugar water to a pitcher. Add the cold water to taste, then refrigerate for 30 to 40 minutes. If it’s too sweet, add lemon juice to taste. Add tequila to 1 1/2 cups of the lemonade.

For the blueberry layer: Combine the water and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat. Add the lavender and steep for four minutes, then strain through a fine-mesh strainer to yield 1/2 cup.

When you’re ready to fill the popsicles (don’t do it ahead of time), puree the blueberries and syrup in a blender and pass through a fine-mesh strainer. Return the mixture to the blender, add the rum and puree a second time. Pass through a fine-mesh strainer to yield 1 1/2 cups.

To assemble: Pour the blueberry mixture about a third of the way into the mold. Add the stick and make sure it stands straight. Put the cover on the mold and freeze for three hours. Repeat with the lemonade, then with the raspberry.

To serve, dip the bottom of the mold briefly into lukewarm water so the popsicle releases easily.

Per popsicle (based on 8): 150 calories, 0 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 29 g sugar

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