Popsicles are a hot -- and cool -- trend

Inventive flavor combinations are all the rage among Washington area popsicle makers, restaurants and mixologists this summer.
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 5:02 PM

Could popsicles finally be the food trend that pushes cupcakes off their throne? They have all the right ingredients: A 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, Ore. Here in the Washington area, the Dairy Godmother in Del Ray 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 Farmers Market on Saturdays, 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 and at 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. (She hasn't signed a lease but is looking in Old Town Alexandria, Harbor Place and Georgetown.) 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 Washington 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-jalapeo 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 on 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. On Aug. 20, the pair will begin selling at the Petworth farmers market on Friday afternoons. They hope that a Pleasant Pops truck will hit the streets by Sept. 1.

Chefs, not surprisingly, have picked up on the trend. 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.

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."

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