With the hottest days of summer upon us, there’s no denying the importance of cooling down with ice cold sweet treats. We have the rest of the year for pie, cake, and cookies, but ‘tis the season for run-down-your-fingers, freeze-your-brain desserts. Luckily, there’s no shortage of ways to satisfy your craving for all things sweet and freezing. We broke down some of our favorites:
There are about as many stories of ice cream’s origins as there are flavors of this indulgent treat. Whether an early form of ice cream appeared in Ancient China, Japan, Europe, or anywhere else around the globe, there’s no denying that the concept is old—second century BC or before old. Sweet, frozen drinks were consumed in countless countries and territories, and they gradually evolved into something more solid. In the 16th century, Italian scientists discovered a freezing method, cooling items in a salt and ice solution—a technique used for keeping ice cream cold while churning it. As for the U.S., ice cream was considered an elite-only delicacy until the 1800s. But thanks to the start of mass production in the 1850s, it become widely available—and consumed.
In its most basic form, ice cream is made with milk, cream, sugar, and sometimes egg yolks. These ingredients are combined until the sugar dissolves, then the mixture is churned, either by hand or in an ice cream maker before freezing (traditionally to 10 degrees F).
The ingredients in frozen custard are the same as in ice cream, but frozen custard always contains egg yolks. The end result is a much denser and softer texture, thanks to a higher freezing temperature of 23 degrees F and the minimal amount of air churned into custard during freezing. Frozen custard has origins in New York City or the Midwest, depending on who you ask, but it’s still served at old school joints throughout the country.
This Italian specialty has gained significant traction in recent years, with gelaterias and specialty brands popping up seemingly everywhere. Although it’s traditionally made with milk and no cream (though some producers use cream), gelato has a silkier texture than ice cream. Churned very slowly, gelato also absorbs flavors more intensely due to its lower fat content.
Like frozen custard, soft serve’s ingredients are the same as it’s cold cousin, ice cream. Soft serve differs only in texture. Additional air is added while it freezes at a higher temperature, making it softer than regular ice cream. It’s then served through an extruding machine.
First popularized Stateside in the 1980s by the appropriately named TCBY (The Country’s Best Yogurt), frozen yogurt enjoyed a resurgence in the mid 2000s with the arrival of numerous nationwide chains. Made with yogurt instead of cream and sugar, frozen yogurt, or “fro-yo”, is naturally lower in calories and has a more tart, tangy flavor than ice cream. Although it can be served in a harder, more frozen form, this cool treat is usually sold in a smooth, soft serve-like texture.
If you’ve never had kulfi (pronounced: kool-fee), this summer is the time to try it. This Indian ice cream variety is traditionally made by boiling sweetened buffalo milk to reduce its volume, then pouring it into metal containers and submerging it in ice to freeze. The result is a slightly chewy, creamy texture, and a caramelized milky flavor. Kulfi is often served unflavored or in traditional Indian flavors like rosewater, cardamom, mango and/or saffron.
Unlike the other frozen treats listed above, sorbet features no dairy, just fruit and sugar churned until smooth. Similar to other frozen treats, sorbet’s origins are unclear, but definitely old. It likely shares roots with ice cream, as people were consuming cold, sweetened preparations thousands of years ago. Many sources say that sorbet was first eaten in the 1500s by Italian nobility as a palate cleanser between courses.
Similar to sorbet, the Italian granita is made from sugar, water, and flavorings. But instead of being churned, it’s frozen and scraped or stirred frequently during the freezing process for a chunkier, icier texture than sorbet.
Paletas, a Mexican and Latin American treat, are similar to American popsicles, but made largely with real fruit juice instead of fruit-flavored sugar syrups. Paletas often contain chunks of real fruit and are sold by paleterias, street vendors who sell them out of a cart.
Shave Ice Varieties
What do you call ice shaved thinly into superfine snow-like crystals and topped with everything from fruit syrups to condensed milk to purple yam? Why, shave ice of course! Usually made from large blocks of ice sliced across with a blade, shave ice takes many different forms.
In Japan, where it likely originated, shaved ice is known as Kakigori and is served in a mound of snow-like ice topped with flavored syrups and often condensed milk. This specialty, along with other aspects of Japanese culture, spread to Hawaii, where it is known as shave ice. The Filipino version Halo-Halo includes the combination of many other ingredients including sweet red bean, mixed fruits, agar jelly, evaporated milk, leche flan, purple yam, and ice cream.
The ubiquitous snow cone has a different texture from other shaved ice varieties, as the crystals are much larger and crunchier. Served in a paper cone and topped with syrup, it’s a summer must-have for children.
About the author: Leah Bhabha is a cookbook co-author, recipe tester, and food writer who has written for numerous publications including Food & Wine, Marie-Claire, The Guardian, and Food52. She chronicles her cooking and eating experiences on her blog, OneHungryPickle.com.