One treat that regularly inhabited the freezers of my youth was the hallowed Jell-O pudding pop. These days, it’s hard to say “Jell-O pudding pop” without conjuring up an unsavory image of a genteel TV doctor gone bad. Maybe that’s why Jell-O let Gen X’s favorite vanilla and chocolate desserts-on-a-stick go gently into that good night.
Sometimes, when retro culture makes a forceful resurfacing, I look them up on the internet to see if anyone has resuscitated my favorite old thing. Alas. Little Debbie’s Cosmic Brownies came back, as did Planter’s cheese balls. But those pudding pops? No such luck. (Jell-O does sell DIY kits.)
Isolating at home during the pandemic offered ample time for re-creating ’80s favorites. One sunny afternoon, I made a batch of homemade vanilla pudding and froze it into ice pop molds and envisioned a much younger version of myself: craving sated.
As it turns out, the re-creation of an old favorite was only a jumping-off point. Another point of nostalgia (I love Don Draper’s description of that feeling in “Mad Men”: the pain from an old wound) was the rocket pop, the red, white and blue ice pop procured, most often, from an ice cream truck.
I grew up in two places, first in New York City and, later, in suburban Massachusetts. In the former, the music from the truck blended in with the city’s many other sounds. To hear it was to know the nearing of respite from the smothering heat of summer in a city. In the latter, an ice cream truck signified some kind of communal event. People poured out of their houses, onto wide streets, where cars kind of lumbered. In small towns, time stops in summer. It’s not at all like life in a city.
A rocket pop drips down the arm. By the time you reach the bottom — the blue — on a hot summer day, it may be entirely gone, the victim of July’s scorching heat. Such is not true with the recipe I developed, where smashed raspberries take the place of the rocket’s red top, vanilla pudding stands in for the traditional lemon center, and cooked blueberries (here, tinged with lemon, too) anchor the bottom for a solid purplish blue.
I make these in paper cups, not in molds. They are substantial, large pops that marry two of my favorite childhood flavors; they work together, physically and on the palate. They are a little icy, and a little creamy. Fruity, and bright and sweet.
Will they run down your arm? Surely any July sun will cause them to melt. But there is no danger of losing the precious bottom layer if you eat slowly.
Because these pops must be frozen in layers, you can save a little time and labor by making the three elements in advance. The raspberry smash takes but a few minutes and a fork. The blueberry compote is a five-minute affair, plus time to cool.
The vanilla pudding, the most complicated element of this recipe, is mostly a matter of attention-paying and stirring. It’s a basic custard, but, because of its strong ratio of eggs to cornstarch, it’s also the kind of recipe that shrugs off curdling (although there’s a step in here that protects against the errant curdle, should you accidentally take things too far: a sieve). Make the pudding as far as two days ahead of time and hold it in the fridge with wax paper or plastic wrap pressed directly on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming until you’re ready to assemble the pops.
The rocket pops themselves can hold for up to a week in the freezer. So, you can make them in advance for Fourth of July gatherings. And, when the guests arrive, surprise them with these most festive of treats, served extra cold and dislodged from their cups at the very last minute.
It’s a way to make new memories. I like to think that, years from now, friends and family will remember my own pops with fondness, the way I remember the freezer treats of my own youth.
Save yourself a little bit of a party-day hassle by preparing these up to a week in advance. The three elements that give the pops their red, white and blue colors — smashed raspberries, creamy vanilla pudding and lemony cooked blueberries — can also be prepared separately a day before you assemble the pops.
Equipment: You will need ten 5-ounce paper cups, such as Dixie brand.
Make Ahead: The rocket pops can be made up to 1 week in advance of serving. The pops’ components can be made up to 1 day before assembling the pops.
Storage Notes: Freeze for up to 1 week.
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For the compote
- 1 pint (12 ounces/340 grams) fresh blueberries
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest and 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
For the pudding
- 2/3 cup (133 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- 2 cups (480 milliliters) whole milk
- 1 cup (240 milliliters) heavy cream
- 3 large egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the smash
- 12 ounces (340 grams) fresh raspberries
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
Make the compote: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the blueberries, sugar, lemon zest and juice, and cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until the berries burst and the mixture resembles a sauce, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl.
Place 10 five-ounce paper cups on a rimmed, 9-by-13-inch baking sheet, and ladle 2 tablespoons of the compote into each cup. Transfer the sheet to the freezer and freeze for at least 30 minutes.
Make the pudding: Place a fine-mesh sieve over a medium bowl and set aside. In a medium saucepan off heat, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch and salt. Slowly whisk in the milk and cream until the ingredients are thoroughly combined. One at a time, whisk in the egg yolks, making sure each one is fully incorporated before adding the next.
Set the saucepan over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture just comes to a boil. Continuing to whisk, reduce the heat so the mixture is at a simmer and cook until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 1 minute. If it seems thin, continue boiling for a few minutes more, whisking constantly.
Remove from the heat and strain through the fine-mesh sieve into a bowl using a rubber spatula to press it through, or, if desired, pour directly into the bowl. Stir in the vanilla. Cover, and, if desired, place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard to keep a skin from forming. Refrigerate until cool and thick, about 2 hours.
Make the smash: While the pudding chills, in a medium bowl, use a fork to smash the raspberries, sugar and almond extract until the mixture is chunky but without any large pieces.
Once the blueberry compote is semi-frozen — press it with a clean finger and it should create a dent — and the pudding has chilled, spoon 2 heaping tablespoons of the pudding into each paper cup. Smooth the pudding with the back of the spoon, insert a wooden ice pop stick in the center of each cup and return to the freezer for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour, so that the layer has time to partially set. It does not need to be completely frozen for the next layer.
Remove the pops once more and spoon 2 tablespoons of the raspberry smash on top of each pop. Return the tray to the freezer and freeze for at least 3 hours.
When ready to serve, run only the cup under warm running water and, holding the stick, pull the pop gently to unmold.
Per serving (1 pop)
Calories: 246; Total Fat: 12 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 32 mg; Sodium: 97 mg; Carbohydrates: 32g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 25 g; Protein: 4 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From food writer Hannah Selinger.
Tested by Debi Suchman and Hattie Ulan; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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