Are you a human with a mouth? Then I’m pretty sure you like popsicles. If you don’t, I guess you hate fun.
I haven’t called my post “It’s Popsicle Season etc. etc.” I’ve actually done something mildly appropriative and called them paletas, which is the Spanish word for popsicle and in the New World refers to the wonderful array of popsicles available throughout Mexico. That is where I truly fell in love with popsicles, because Mexicans do them much better, I’m convinced, than the rest of the world.
A few years ago I went on a solo trip to Oaxaca, which is pretty much the Mayan cultural capital of the world. See my photos above? Proof. I could go to Mexico over and over again, and I’ve been to different parts at different times, but Oaxaca captured my heart in a very special way. Just look how committed I am to that piña loca.
It also captured my stomach, because the food there is totally wild and amazing – a complex and unique blend of labor-intensive traditional indigenous preparations and the Spanish-inspired food found in Northern Mexico that Americans are used to. They use bizarre ingredients and combinations in a way that connects to my own Indian food heritage, part of what I’ve coined the Desi-Mexi-Connexi, which more broadly refers to the indescribable and odd ways in which Indian and Mexican culture are similar. (See also: our mutual obsession with mangoes as evidenced by a shared desperate longing for the advent of the season; and our superior threads/fashion; and our shared love of yellow gold.)
Basically, Mexico feels like a surrogate motherland to me, probably because my own seems so far away, and because my diasporic family history has rendered my connection to the Subcontinent fairly thin.
But let’s talk about paletas and how shitty yours are going to be in comparison to the ones you get in Mexico, shall we?
The real reason your paletas won’t ever be as good as the ones you get in Mexico is because in comparison to Mexico, the fruit we eat here is basically garbage fruit. Take for example, the papaya, which is a great example, because papayas you get in the United States actually do taste a little bit like wet garbage. Like, when people here tell me they like papaya, my first reaction is concern because I’m thinking, hello, there is something deeply wrong with you.
Now, if you get papaya in Mexico or in parts of Central America, it tastes absolutely delicious. They drink papaya juice, like, willingly. In the United States – or at least on the east coast – it’s actually quite rare to come by absolutely delicious produce, and when we do it’s probably pretty expensive. So many of us wouldn’t dream of making it into a popsicle, and instead would just eat it fresh. You’re going to have to get over that, or just expect not as good paletas. Using sub-par fruit is like putting lipstick on a pig. Still, I’ve provided some options.
Another note before we begin: paletas in Mexico (and elsewhere) can be cloyingly sweet. I am not a huge fan of sweets (except for actual candy, which I deeply adore), so mine are less sweet and use less simple syrup than traditional paletas or popsicles. You can of course defy me and make frozen sugar bombs by simply increasing the sugar quotient. Two out of the four recipes I have here include white sugar, but I usually only use it on special occasions or when the fruit truly wouldn’t shine without it.
Finally, I should tell you that I loathe the boozy popsicle trend. I think it’s dumb. It’s the culinary equivalent of the caption “zOMG.” Just drink your booze out of a pineapple like a normal person and stop trying to ruin everything else by finding a way to sneak a shot of tequila into it just to be cool. We already know you’re not cool, and we’re fine with it.
Ok, moving right along…
Equipment You’ll Need
I’ve seen people on the internet make beautiful popsicles with wooden sticks and old-timey aluminum or stainless steel molds. Those make gorgeous popsicles but I actually think newer molds are better designed. Mine are made with a little cup at the bottom to catch meltage and also come with holes in the reusable sticks so that your popsicle doesn’t fall apart. They’re not nearly as pretty but I much prefer the eating experience superior design affords me, and bonus, I never run out of wooden sticks, because I don’t have to buy any. But if you would like to make your beautiful wooden stick popsicles like a tool, be my guest. I also have smaller molds I got at the dollar store, but they’re probably slowly poisoning me, so I’m not going to recommend those, even though they’re perfect-sized. It’s good to measure capacity of the “carafe” of the popsicle mold to know how much mixture you need to make. Mine, for example, takes half a cup per mold.
A good blender
Not necessary for ever recipe, but blended fruit pops are god’s gift, so have something. I use my Nutribullet, and it works like a charm.
Ok, we’re almost at the recipes, but I have one more critical note: my recipes are made 2 paletas (1 cup) or 3 (1.5 cups) at a time. They’re very easy to double or triple, I just like making mine two at a time because I’m a single lady who’s easily bored, and I never want to eat 6 of anything in a row.
Recipe 1: Orange Jamaica Paletas
Ingredients (yields 2 paletas)
1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange juice, strained to remove pulp
zest of 2 oranges
1 hibiscus tea bag (if you can’t find hibiscus tea or hibiscus flowers, you can use Tazo’s Passion tea)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup water
1 dried chile de arbol, broken in half
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh lime juice or rice vinegar
optional: cocktail bitters (Angostura or grapefruit bitters would work nicely here)
optional: dash of cayenne
I’ve started off with the most complicated recipe, but you should make these for she sheer joy of having something this strikingly beautiful living in your freezer. For this recipe, I have defied most of the notes and rules I have laid out above. First, I’ll be making a simple syrup with plenty of white sugar, and second, I will be using kind of crappy oranges. Don’t get me wrong, the juice is fine. But the texture is not so great, so I’ve decided to “paleta-lize” them. Lucky us.
These paletas remind me the most of Mexico. Inspired by agua de jamaica – a ubiquitous hibiscus agua fresca, they are a combination of sweet, tart, spicey and even a little salty. The vinegar (if you use it as opposed to lime) and salt are a surprise, I agree, but they add a lil something and almost make this drink remind me of a sweet michelada. Don’t go overboard with either the vinegar or salt, as both of them will lower the freezing temperature.
Start by making the simple syrup: In a saucepan, combine water, sugar, and the chile and heat on medium, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add orange zest and stir until you begin to see just a few bubbles starting to rise. Add salt, turn off the heat and let stand for at least 5 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, and let it cool.
Make the jamaica tea: In a mug, combine 1/4 cup of boiling hot water and the tea bag, making sure not to squeeze the bag or stir. Let steep for 2 minutes. Discard tea bag. Let cool.
In a measuring cup with a spout, combine orange juice, tea, lime juice or vinegar and 1/4 cup of the orange chile simple syrup. Stir and taste for sweetness, adding more syrup if desired – you’ll likely have extra after you’re done, which you can jar up and use for the next batch or in a cocktail. If using, add a dash of cocktail bitters and/or cayenne and stir.
Pour the mixture into the molds and freeze overnight. Enjoy!
Recipe 2: Honeydew Lime Paletas
Ingredients (yields 2 paletas)
1 cup chopped very ripe, sweet, and juicy honeydew melon
2 tsps fresh squeezed lime juice
zest of 1 lime
This is by far my favorite paleta of the summer – it’s sugar free, two ingredients, and a gorgeous color – but it comes with a huge caveat: you can’t make it unless you find a delicious honeydew. Now, I know that a strange fate has befallen the honeydew melon – it has largely gone the way of hard unripe filler for crappy fruit plates, and even I have avoided it at grocery stores like the plague. But when you get honeydew in other parts of the world – Turkey stands out to me – it is magically delicious, sporting floral notes and honeyed excellence. With a sense of hope in mind, I did seek one out recently – made the produce guy teach me how to pick one out, and I ended up with a super juicy, crazy sweet honeydew. Notice this recipe calls for no sugar. Yep, that’s how good it was.
How do you pick a gorgeous honeydew? Well, like a watermelon, you want to look for a broad white-yellow spot. It indicates that the melon had time to sit and hang out and ripen before it got picked. But further, when you smell the honeydew, it should smell like fresh cut flowers – floral and delicately sweet. How romantic.
Texture is important. All melon popsicles are hard to pull off, because if the texture is off, the melon will separate. Watermelon does this fairly frequently, but it also happens with cantaloupe. It can be salvaged by throwing in a teaspoon of chia seeds to help create some suspension in the mixture, but that will change the texture into something slightly less satisfying.
But if you have a very juicy honeydew, you’ll be just fine. When you blend it up, it will look creamy and delicious. (Note: If you do blend up your melon, and you notice it separating, just throw some ice into the blender with it and drink it down like a slush. It will be delicious, and you won’t be sad about wasting a melon.)
To make them, it’s very simple: combine everything in a blender and blend the shit out of it. Taste for balance. I’ll be honest, the first time I was experimenting with these, I put in more lime than I meant to, and they were absolutely delicious but the lime overpowered the melon. With this recipe, I think I’ve struck the right balance, but as long as you don’t make it crazy sour, I think playing around based on your taste is probably the best thing.
*Note, you can make this exact same recipe with cantaloupe, lemon, and lemon zest. Just cut the lemon juice and zest in half.*
Recipe 3: Salty Strawberry Paletas
Ingredients (yields 3 paletas)
1 cup full fat greek yogurt
1/4 cup + 2 T freeze dried strawberries, placed in a ziploc bag and smashed unevenly with a rolling pin
2 T white sugar
1/2 tsp sea salt
Ugh I take back what I said above, THESE are my favorites of the summer. They are inspired (um, stolen) from Little Baby’s Ice Cream, which is my favorite ice cream spot in Philly, possibly the world. I happened to catch my friend Pete, who is a co-owner, right at the beginning of the summer and asked him his favorite summer flavor, and this was it, baby. So I wandered over there, got them to dig out a scoop from the back stash for me, and it was love at first lick. I knew I had to immediately recreate it somehow. Mine is a little different, of course, but it honors the spirit.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking, why freeze dried strawberries? First, I told you I was going to give you options in case your fruit sucked, so here is one. Second, frozen full fat greek yogurt is as close as you’re going to get to an ice cream texture. The minute you start adding water, i.e. water from fresh fruit, the texture goes from creamy to icey. So I’ve cut out the additional water by using freeze dried fruit that I picked up at Trader Joe’s. And plus, you get a much more concentrated strawberry flavor. The reason I tell you to smash them unevenly is because it’s nice to have a blend of totally pulverized strawberry dust that basically dissolves into and flavors the yogurt, as well as some small bits and chunks suspended in the paleta to give you some textural interest.
To make this, you’re basically going to combine all of the ingredients, stir well, and let them sit until you’re quite sure all of the sugar has dissolved. Remember that things taste different when they’re frozen, so if you taste this, it might actually taste a little saltier than feels right, but after you freeze it, it should taste balanced.
BONUS RECIPE: Breakfast Paletas (yields 3 paletas)
1 large ripe banana
2 dried pitted dates
1/2 cup soy milk
1 packet of Starbucks via (or one serving of whatever other instant espresso or coffee)
1 T chia seeds
1 T flax meal
1 T natural peanut butter
I have included these as a bonus because (1) they don’t even come close to what a Mexican paleteria or neveria would ever serve and (2) they’re like kind of healthy and filling and really more practical than anything else. You literally get a caffeine fix to start the day off right, and you get like grains, and protein, and fruit and all kinds of crap. Plus you get to eat a popsicle for breakfast and feel fucking great about it.
Frozen banana is literally a dream – it tastes just as creamy as regular ice cream (look at all those people who make banana ice cream in the food processor with nothing but bananas – I’ve done it, and it’s divine.)
To make them, combine everything but the peanut butter in your blender and blend until smooth. Take your peanut butter (if it’s very thick, melt it in the microwave for a few seconds until it’s pourable) and pour it on top. Gently taking a chopstick or a knife, swirl it into the mix – just a few swirls, you don’t want to fully combine it. Gently pour into molds and freeze overnight.
I very much hope you enjoy paleta season and the last drops of summer. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the glorious book Paletas by Fany Gerson, who has done an excellent job creating beautiful paletas recipes, some of which I have made. I find hers too sweet for my taste – true to Mexican convention – but easily modifiable and absolutely amazing. Try the roasted banana paleta and the fresh coconut paleta. You’ll be glad you did!