June 23, 2017
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The Story of Mexican Ice Cream
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In a new cookbook, Fany Gerson tells the centuries-long story of ice cream in Mexico, from flavored snow to hand-churned sorbet.

Ice cream may feel like an essential piece of summertime Americana, but before Mr. Softee trucks and grocery store freezer aisles, before soda shops and gelaterias, before European settlers made their way to North America, ice cream was being made in Mexico. As Fany Gerson tells us in her new book, Mexican Ice Cream, it all started with the Teotihuacanos—a civilization in what is now San Juan.

“The first frozen treats were made from snow gathered from the top of the Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes,” Gerson says. The snow would be mixed with mashed fruit and sometimes sweetened with honey. Since the snow had to be retrieved from the tops of volcanoes and kept insulated to prevent it from melting, the treat was reserved for emperors and others in power.

Centuries later, after ice became a readily available commodity and Italian immigrants began to arrive in Mexico with recipes for gelato, a new era of Mexican ice cream was born—closer to the ice cream we’re used to in the United States, but still possessing its own identity. For one, instead of the big, industrial ice cream machines that many American restaurants and ice cream shops use to churn their ice cream, many traditional businesses in Mexico churn the ice cream by hand, in huge metal canisters called garrafas. The canisters are filled with the ice cream base and placed inside of wooden barrels full of ice and salt, and then it’s someone’s job to stir the ice cream with a large wooden paddle as it slowly freezes.

This technique gives the ice cream a unique texture. “Mexican ice cream is closer to gelato, as it has less fat and air than American style,” Gerson says. Unlike the Ben & Jerry’s we’re used to, ice cream in Mexico also places more stress on the flavoring agents, like chocolate, cinnamon, and fruit, and less emphasis on mix-ins like candies and cookies. And finally, Gerson points out, fresh, seasonal sorbet, or nieves de agua, is all over the place. “This is mostly because of the incredible abundance of fruit,” she says.

In Mexican Ice Cream, Gerson writes for an audience of home cooks with electric ice cream machines, but the recipes channel many of the flavors and ingredients from her hometown of Mexico City, like tres leches, soursop, guava, and horchata. But she warns us not to overlook the beauty of basics like lime sorbet. “Even super-simple flavors are delicious because of their brightness and pure fruit flavor,” she writes. “Sorbets made with amazing fruit will capture the essence and spirit of Mexico’s wonderful nieves de agua.”

Ingredients

  • 6 cups cubed watermelon (about 2 pounds)
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 2 serrano chiles, coarsely chopped, with seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • pinch of ground pequín chile, plus more to taste (optional)
  • salted ground chiles, for sprinkling (optional, look for Tajin brand)

Fany Gerson, chef and owner of La Newyorkina, shares her knowledge of frozen desserts south of the border in Mexican Ice Cream, ranging from boozy margarita flavors to grasshopper-topped sorbet.

In Mexico, a very popular street snack is cut-up fresh fruit sprinkled with salt, ground chiles, and lime juice. Watermelon, mango, orange, and pineapple are the most common. Cucumber and jicama are served this way, too. Fruit sorbets are often flavored with the same seasonings, but this refreshing watermelon sorbet uses fresh green chiles, not ground chiles, for spiciness.

I like this sorbet with melon seeds mixed in, as seeing them in there makes me feel as though I’m taking bites of fresh fruit. But it’s surprising to me that it’s so difficult to find watermelons with seeds in the United States. You can use seedless watermelon, of course—the sorbet will still taste amazing.

  1. In a blender, combine the watermelon, sugar, corn syrup, lime juice, chopped chiles, salt, and pequín chile. Puree until smooth. Taste and, if desired, add more pequín chile. Pour into a container, cover, and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
  2. Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When the sorbet has finished churning, mix in the reserved watermelon seeds (if using). For a soft consistency, serve the sorbet right away; for a firmer consistency, transfer it to a container, cover, and allow to harden in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. Serve sprinkled with salted ground chiles, if desired.

Ingredients

  • ⅓ cup almonds
  • ⅓ cup long-grain rice
  • 1 3-inch piece Mexican cinnamon
  • 4 cups half-and-half
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • ¾ tablespoons kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Ground Mexican cinnamon, for sprinkling

Fany Gerson, chef and owner of La Newyorkina, shares her knowledge of frozen desserts south of the border in Mexican Ice Cream, with recipes ranging from a boozy margarita flavor to grasshopper-topped sorbet.

Horchata is a traditional Mexican drink made with grains, spices, and sometimes nuts. There are many different versions, but the most common is made with rice and Mexican cinnamon. I think the addition of almonds is especially good because nuts add a rich, full flavor. Horchata is my sister’s favorite agua fresca, so she would definitely approve of this version turned into ice cream.

Toasting the rice, cinnamon, and almonds really enhances their flavors. The starch from the rice adds a certain richness to this ice cream and makes it quite addictive.

  1. In a large saucepan, toast the almonds, rice, and cinnamon over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the almonds are slightly golden and the cinnamon is very fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the half-and-half, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat, cover, and allow to steep for 2 hours.
  2. In a blender, working in two batches, puree the almond mixture until the nuts are pulverized and resemble a coarse flour. Pour each batch through a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl and press down on the solids with a spatula or spoon to extract as much liquid as possible; discard the solids in the strainer. Blend the liquid in batches and strain once more; discard any solids left in the strainer.
  3. Partially fill a large bowl with ice and water, place a medium bowl in the ice water, and set the fine-mesh strainer across the top.
  4. Return the strained liquid to the saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a heatproof bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. Gradually ladle in about half of the hot liquid while whisking continuously. Whisk this mixture into the liquid in the saucepan and cook, stirring continuously, until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour the custard through the strainer into the prepared bowl, add the salt and vanilla, and stir until cool. Remove the bowl from the ice bath, cover, and refrigerate until the custard is cold, at least 3 hours or up to overnight.
  5. Whisk the custard to recombine. Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For a soft consistency, serve the ice cream right away; for a firmer consistency, transfer it to a container, cover, and allow to harden in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. Serve the ice cream sprinkled with ground Mexican cinnamon.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups blackberries, fresh or frozen
  • 3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 6 ounces requesón or queso fresco
  • 1½ cups half-and-half
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • ⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Fany Gerson, chef and owner of La Newyorkina, shares her knowledge of frozen desserts south of the border in Mexican Ice Cream, ranging from boozy margarita flavors to grasshopper-topped sorbet.

In Mexico, helado de queso is usually made with one kind of fresh cheese, requesón, without any other featured ingredients, so the cheese flavor really shines. I absolutely love it, especially when there are a few chunks of cheese to bite into. The texture of this ice cream can be slightly grainy due to the cheese, but it’s truly fantastic.

Occasionally, you will find the helado de queso with fruit mixed in, whether bits of fresh fruit, a jamlike concoction, or fruit paste. The combination is delicious and reminds me of a sort of cheesecake (in fact, feel free to add some crushed Maria cookies to turn it into a cheesecake ice cream).

  1. In a saucepan, combine the blackberries, confectioner’s sugar, and water. Set the pan over low heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture comes to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes, until it has thickened slightly, then transfer to a bowl. Gently mash the berries with the back of a spoon, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. In a blender or food processor, combine the cream cheese, 3 ounces of the requesón, the half-and-half, granulated sugar, vanilla, salt and corn syrup. Puree until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and add the cream and the remaining 3 ounces of requesón. Whisk gently to combine; the mixture should be slightly chunky. Cover and refrigerate until the base is cold, at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
  3. Whisk the base to recombine. Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When the ice cream has finished churning, mix in the chilled blackberries. For a soft consistency, serve the ice cream right away; for a firmer consistency, transfer it to a container, cover, and allow to harden in a freezer for 2 to 3 hours.

Anna Hezel

Anna Hezel is the senior editor of TASTE.

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