...Then again, it's not as if it gets all that hot up here in the mountains of Nagano.
And this particular area of Nagano Prefecture I hole up in these days is mostly where people come to spend summer holidays to escape from the heat as well as the hustle and bustle of city life, for a quiet and cool country air. You can survive through a summer without an AC, or even an electric fan, and you can't imagine how grateful I am for that. Mind you, this comes in a package with the long and harsh winter; but I really can't complain.
What this all means is that I don't often need to find refuge in cold foods. When I go out in town (which I don't often do) on a hot day, the heat does beat me and I might crave something cold to eat or drink. But as soon as I get back in the house, the craving usually fades away pretty quick. I do like ice cream and I make and eat it every now and then, but never in a large amount at a time. Things like shave ice, which I used to love as a kid, are deemed 'overly chilling' and rarely find their way in my life here.
So when I first started noticing a lot of posts about homemade ice pops, or popsicles, or ice lollies, or whatever you call them, popping up on Instagram earlier this summer, I was curious but also a little skeptical about the idea.
Is it or is it not worth buying? After a few weeks of internal discussion, helped by the rising temperatures, I gave in; I got myself a popsicle mold set. My curiosity won in the end.
And off I went to what was to be a four-week popsicle making
Most of the recipes I tried can be found online; I usually made them using natural sweeteners (usually honey, agave syrup, or maple syrup) rather than sugar. Things taste less sweet when frozen, which often means you may want to make your popsicle mixture really sweet. Sugar also helps prevent the frozen treat from going rock hard. But once you tried a few less-sweet and perhaps less-silky homemade versions, you just get used to them. Heck, it gives you an excuse to eat just one more.
In fact, the hardest part of all this was securing enough room in the freezer to store finished popsicles, as intact as possible for the inevitable picture-taking later, whilst making a next batch of them. I made most of my popsicles in a fairly small batch, usually 2-4 pops at a time, sometimes even just one; but like I mentioned above, we don't eat cold foods all that much up here in the first place. I tried to use everything I found in the freezer that I could use to free up room, and it wasn't enough. In my desperation, I even went so far as to send some two dozens of popsicles by a frozen courier service off to my sister in Tokyo, for whom frozen teats would come more handy. A win-win solution.
And now, the following is a not-so-brief rundown of the popsicles I made, both fruity and not so fruity, creamy and dairy-free, and boozy and kids-friendly. I hope it won't bore you to death. Or else freeze you to death.
mixed berry buttermilk
The very first one I tried was the strawberries & cream. As it was my first one (in ages anyway), I screw up a bit with unmolding and the popsicles got squashed a little, but still tasted smashing. They were basically lightly whipped heavy cream, lightly sweetened with honey, with streaks of poached and pureed strawberries. Easy peasy. The recipe is from here.
Now something a little unusual...
apricot and blueberry with lavender
pineapple with chamomile
The theme here was "a hint of floral note". The strawberry and rhubarb rose came in a layer of pureed strawberries and one of yogurt with roasted and pureed rhubarb, both sweetened with agave syrup and cooked with some dried rose petals. The hint of rose was perhaps a little too faint, but the pops tasted great. The original recipe is from here.
As for the apricot and blueberry with lavender, I cooked down some fresh apricot with a bit of dried lavender buds and honey, pureed (with the flower removed), and added almond milk to it. Before popping them into the freezer, I threw in a few whole blueberries, which turned a bit too hard when frozen; you might want to cut them up or something, which may be a bit of fuss though. The recipe for the apricot base is from here, but I turned it into an entirely different thing.
Then again, even if they don't come out perfect enough, I will enjoy them just as well as long as they are tasty.
Here is another bunch of popsicles that paired early summer fruits with a creamy base. The roasted strawberry and toasted coconut had strawberries roasted with olive oil (and a bit of balsamic vinegar in may case), and toasted coconut hidden in a coconut milk base. The recipe is from here.
For the sweet cherry and coconut milk, you cook some bing cherries (where I took the liberty of adding some red wine) and puree them to make the deep purple layers, and mix up greek-style yogurt and coconut milk for the white layers, both sweetened with honey. It proved to be a challenge for me to create clear-cut layers, as they did in the original recipe, mostly likely because I was not patient enough to let each layer freeze up and become completely solid before adding the next. I even tried for a second time, only to repeat the failure; the purple would seep into the white, much to my chagrin. I was still happy with how they tasted, so that was okay. I didn't try for third time lucky, but if/when I do, I will certainly try to be very patient.
As the temperature crept up, I fancied something that reminds me of real summer, something tropical...
As a kid, summer fruit meant watermelon. Heck, summer meant watermelon, even. Well, in a way. We would consume a stupid amount of real watermelons as well as these watermelon pops over the course of the summer. Now my watermelon chili pops may be more for grown-ups, with a fiery touch of chili pepper hidden in the innocent-looking red ice. I used this recipe as a reference, but mine were basically just watermelon flesh, agave syrup, and a bit of cayenne pepper. I meant to make the green layer with kiwi fruit and mint leaves, and bought a kiwi fruit on the day of making them, then managed to somehow mislay it. I realized this at about 11:30pm, with the red layer already frozen up nicely, ready to be topped off with a green one. What I used as a substitute in desperation, you probably don't want to know - suffice to say it was edible. Just about.
Because the fruits are abundant in the summer and I love fruits of most kinds and in most forms, popsicles I make have been mostly fruit-based. But there were some that were not.
Like these vegetable pops, made using some of the summer/tropical vegetables with only a few additional ingredients . The tomato was made in much the same way as you would sorbet, and tasted much like, well, tomatoes. The recipe is from here (in Japanese). As for the corn, I had made such things as corn ice creams before and thoroughly liked them, so I knew I would enjoy this one prepared along with coconut milk (from this recipe) too, which I did.
Going a bit farther away from the produce section for now...
You morning cup of joe in a popsicle form! Not that I am in the habit of indulging in ice pops first thing in the morning (not every morning, anyway), but this is (yet) another way of enjoying coffee in the summer. They are all more or less similar in a sense that they are a mixture of strong coffee and milk/cream, but tasty all the same.
Those that look on the verge of collapsing (some really did...) are the cappuccino, which I made after falling in love with the photos I saw here; the coffee-milk base was made based on the recipe here, with a dollop of lightly whipped cream on top. They weren't the easiest popsicles to eat, but that didn't prevent us from gobbling them down happily. The mexican coffee pops, though thoroughly flavorful with a hint of cocoa and cinnamon, were surprisingly light, probably because they used milk rather than cream, and some ice cubes blended in. When frozen, they naturally came out in two layers. The recipe is from here.
But here is something that doesn't require much practicing.
Now, I'm not particularly partial to chocolate (no, really) as far as ice cream flavors are concerned - it's not the flavor I would normally choose from among other kinds. But I do like ice cream with chocolate coating on, and now I am this deep in popsicle-making business, I might as well try my hand at this, too, right?
Now here are some more popsicles that used chocolate and nuts in addition to fruits.
chocolate cherry nutella fudge
First up was the peanut butter & jelly, in which you have a luscious mixture of peanut butter and yogurt with swirls of raspberry sauce (which I used from a store-bought jar that was sitting around in the fridge). The recipe for the ice pop base was from here and here, and it was really straightforward to make. A perfect choice for anyone who loves pb&j and ice pops! The white chocolate raspberry, meanwhile, was a simple mixture of melted white chocolate, coconut milk and yogurt, with streaks of mashed raspberries (the recipe can be found here).
The date shake pops, based on this recipe, are an interesting mix of greek-style yogurt and dried dates, the latter acting as the sweetener - and it did the job admirably. I saw someone throwing in some bananas into the mix, and I followed the suit to a great result.
And now, the chocolate cherry nutella fudge pops.
While we are talking about unashamedly rich popsicles, here's another one.
Well, two, actually. I came across this idea of using loaf pans to make popsicles, which I think is one of the more unusual and ingenious ways of doing it. I had seen recipes for ice creams made in loaf pans and served in thin (or not so thin) slices, but sticking in some, well, sticks makes it hundred times more fun.
So. I had to give it a go.
For these popsicles I used small loaf pans rather than standard-sized kinds, which I thought would make too big popsicles. And because they should be sliced frozen straight out of the freezer, I think it would be better to use a recipe that makes softer ice cream than those that freeze rock solid. So you see, my choice of fattier, creamier recipes is fully justified here. And they got sliced like a dream.
Feeling a bit too calorie-rich now? Here are some light, refreshing choices for you.
honeyed ume cordial
Look, I admit I did a really bad job with the color scheme here (with some of them hard to tell apart - I couldn't), but I assure you they still tasted lovely. The hibiscus & lime is a popsicle version of what is known as agua de Jamaica, a super refreshing drink that is a sweetened and chilled hibiscus tea with juice of lime. I sweetened mine with honey. In fact, all of the four were honey-sweetened; the base for honeyed ume cordial pops was prepared by steeping some green ume (Japanese apricot) in honey, the rosemary lemonade was sweetened with honey and scented with fresh rosemary sprigs, while the ginger ale was based on a homemade batch I had made a long time ago, in the same way as I wrote about before. The last was mixed with some slightly flat sparkling water.
All of these mostly consisted of water with very little sweetener (honey) added to it. Because I suspected this lack of fat and sugar would cause the resulting popsicles to freeze into rock hard blocks of ice, I decided to try and add a small amount of kanten, or agar-agar, as a sort of a stabilizer. I remember liking store-bought bite-size gelatin morsels, made with kanten or real gelatin, frozen on hot days of the summer; when frozen, gelatin desserts get a sherbet-like texture. Here I went easy on kanten and added about 1 g (1/2 tsp) to 240 ml (1 cup) of liquid in total, which was apparently a bit too small an amount; the popsicles were icier than I had wanted them to be, but still not rock hard. May need some adjusting for a perfectly soft and smooth texture.
Soft drinks (that much better with homemade) are one thing that makes fabulous popsicles in a breeze, and another is pureed fruits.
Fortunately or not so fortunately, most citrus fruits are in season in the winter. With the exception of imported citrus fruits, as well as lemons and limes (which are often imported, for that matter), we don't have fresh citrus fruits around in the summer. But luckily, I found a large ziploc bag of amanatsu citrus flesh/juice, which my mom had prepared and saved in the freezer in early spring. I took some of it out, added a bit of honey, and processed in the blender. On a whim, I cooked some cranberries (also frozen) until soft, and added them to a half of the amanatsu mixture, to make two-color amanatsu citrus and cranberry popsicles. In spite of both amanatsu and cranberries being winter fruits, these popsicles could not have tasted more summery.
Anyhow, have we had enough of simple and light for now? Can we move back to something a little heavier and with more body?
When I say 'little heavier', I really meant in terms of topping, I think. These popsicles, featuring some of Japan's favorite traditional flavors, are not so heavy in themselves, but satisfying nonetheless. I found the recipes for black sesame-, adzuki bean-, and matcha-milk pops on a side of the box of the popsicle molds I bought (like this; in Japanese); all of them are fairly simple, using soy milk, to which I made a little change. In some of them anyway.
Melted chocolate, either in drizzles or as a coating, proved to be a great way of topping homemade (or otherwise) popsicles; they help other toppings to stick nicely to the pops. Trying to do so without chocolate, on the other hand, was a bit of a challenge.
Now, the amazake watermelon. For which I couldn't think of any good topping, and just left them as they were. A few words about amazake: it's "a traditional sweet, low- or non-alcohol (depending on recipes) Japanese drink made from fermented rice". Another few words: I don't like it. It's naturally sweet and nutritious and all, but the taste just puts me off, partly because it reminds me of sake, which I hate. But when I came across the talks of homemade popsicles using amazake, I was really curious, and inclined to try my hand at it despite my dislike of the ingredient - as it seemed to be the common opinion of many of those who had tried it that amazake pops don't really taste of amazake.
Now I don't know if amazake is commonly considered a 'milk alternative', but soy, oat, and coconut milks certainly are - so are nut and rice milks.
Milk alternatives that are now familiar to some of you may not be so to most of us in Japan, with a few exceptions such as soy and coconut milk, although we are starting seeing more of them here and there. The good thing is, you can make many of them at home. Here I tried cashew, oat, and (brown) rice milks. And turned some of them into popsicles, of course.
fig and oat milk
It all started with me stumbling across this recipe for the blueberry and cashew milk pops. With a combination of fresh blueberries, homemade cashew milk, and agave syrup, the popsicles tasted really good, even better than I had imagined.
With my curiosity aroused, I decided to try a few other combinations using the same formula, and settled on fig and oat milk, sweetened with maple syrup, and yellow peach and brown rice milk, with honey. The recipe I used for the homemade 'milks' are this for the oat milk (which I also used for the black sesame pops mentioned above) and this for the brown rice milk. I weighed in on whether or not I should cook the fruits first, to bring out their flavors - but decided not for now, just to see how it goes.
Overall, I think I liked cashew milk the best - both for making popsicles and for other uses. I have used store-bought almond milk in some of other recipes, and wasn't wild about it I'm afraid to admit; either it is because I prefer cashew to almond milk, or homemade is better than store-bought, or both, I'll have to see.
As far as other milk alternatives go, I like soy and coconut milks in popsicles. That said, I find coconut milk, when used on its own, having a tendency to give the frozen pops a rather coarse texture that isn't altogether pleasant. I think I like it in a half-and-half combination with greek-style (strained) yogurt, for both the taste and texture.
I also like my popsicle to have different layers of flavors tucked in. Making swirls and stripes is a handy way to do so, and the former seems to suit better to my natural laziness and not-so-nimble fingers; you just make a few different bases, pour them alternately into the molds, and into the freezer they go. Here I made a batch in two different combinations, using a honey-sweetened mixture of greek-style yogurt and coconut milk as a base for both; one has swirls of raspberries and strawberries, sweetened, stewed, and lightly mashed, and pureed mango flesh, and the other, similarly treated blackberries and blueberries, and apricot sauce. Hence my summer fruit and yogurt swirl popsicles, Best eaten after a few minutes at room temperature.
For the sake of layers of flavors - and texture -, something crunchy is also good in popsicles, too.
As its name suggests, this is in every way breakfast on a stick, with its mixture of yogurt, stewed fruit, and granola. It tastes exactly as you imagine it would. I loved the crunch from granola a lot. The recipe can be found here.
Although I prefer swirly patterns as far as making popsicles is concerned, I did take trouble of doing stripes now and again when the recipe looked appealing enough, like these.
The ombre popsicles I found here were simply SO pretty I just had to give it a try. Using this recipe as a reference, I made a mixture of blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries, cooked together with honey and pureed in the blender. I didn't divide the mixture into four (or five or whatever) but just took some of it and added yogurt to it, little by little, increasing the amount as I went from one layer to the next. I added a bit of heavy cream to the last layer (no berries) for a creamier finish. It did take time and was a bit of fuss, but the result was immensely rewarding. I mean, aren't they pretty? Darn tasty too!
I would have liked to try a little more involved stripy patterns, such as these and these, but I ran out of time... or perhaps just burn out after making all these popsicles.
But oh, wait: there were more.
Now, everyone knows the trick of using coffee ice cubes in iced coffee so your lovely brew won't get diluted?
This comes along the same line, only you make the coffee ice in a popsicle form, rather than cubes. There is absolutely no reason why you should have to make your coffee ice in a popsicle form, but I think it's fun. Here I had my coffee with just a bit of cashew milk, but you can have a coffee ice pop in a glass of milk to make milky coffee (which happens to be a popular menu on one of our big donut chains).
When you have done it with coffee, now it's tea, right??
I realized that, despite the stupid amount of popsicles I had been making, I hadn't made any with tea, and I drink tea a whole lot more than coffee! This was one of the very last popsicles I made, with an intention of serving it in ginger ale. You may or may not have had a mix of black tea and ginger ale, but it's one of my favorite things to drink when I crave something cold, sweet, and fizzy. Here I prepared my popsicle with strongly-brewed earl grey tea, and sweetened it with a bit of honey. I also slipped in a slice of lemon into the mold, but unfortunately it did not show up in the finished pop, so I just threw in another slice into my glass. I imagine you could make spiced black tea pop and pop it in milk, to make it a sort of iced spiced chai latte.
I liked this concept of enjoying a flavor combination using a popsicle and a cold drink, so I tried it with a few more different things as well.
I've been enjoying homemade flavored waters for the last few summers, and this is sort of the same thing, with an extra little fun as you get to stir your drink with an ice pop.
Here I used fresh blueberries and red plums, both of which happened to be sitting around in the house. For both of them, I pureed the fruit in the blender with a bit of honey, to make ice pops. Once frozen, I served them in glasses, topped with some sparkling water, with a sprig of fresh herb from the garden - lemon thyme for the blueberry, rosemary for the plum.
Water is good and all, but give me the booze, some of you might say?
Don't mind if I do! Here is another from the same batch of blueberry pops, served with a shot of gin. In a way, I suppose you could almost say it's gin on the (blueberry) rock? I'm not big on hard liquors in general, but I'd say I prefer gin to any other. That said, I haven't drank straight gin since I was in college (which is ages ago), so I topped it with ginger ale. Not too shabby.
Now, did you know there is a whole category of boozy popsicles, or ice pop cocktails, called poptails? I didn't. But I do now, and may have been a little overenthusiastic about them.
I am a social drinker (no, really) and don't drink much at home on my own (no, really) save for occasional glasses of bubbly. But this idea of poptails changed things a little. For a while anyway.
The first round was a selection of flavors that I like as 'real' cocktails.
Mojito seems to be 'in' of late here in Japan, and it's not difficult to see why. This recipe makes a good strong batch of mojito pops, really minty. Pina colada has been a solid favorite of mine, and these pina colada pops didn't disappoint. The recipe is from here.
I also really wanted to try and make popsicles with Pimm's No. 1, and even found a recipe (pimmsicles!), but couldn't lay my hand on the stuff in my neighborhood (no surprise here). Other than that, I thought I should now be satisfied with my poptail making... only, my vigorous recipe searches found me a whole lot of boozy popsicle recipes, and there were simply so many of good-looking ones it would be a pity to miss out on them. So, here I was, doing another round of poptails...
Some of these I had never tried as a cocktail, but their recipes looked promising nonetheless. The whiskeyed strawberries & cream pops, originally made with bourbon which I don't have at hand, were superb even with a run-of-the-mill Japanese whiskey. Whiskey isn't my go-to spirit, but I find it fantastic when mixed with cream (like Bailey's). The mango mai tai pops featured pineapple and mango flesh, in addition to the traditional mai tai ingredients, including a few different types of rum and juice of lime. The recipe is from here.
Like I said, I don't often have drinks in general at home, and cocktails are something I almost always have at a proper bar. The exceptions are sparkling wines and sparkling wine-based cocktails, such as kir royale, bellini, and mimosa. Here I made mimosa pops using this recipe, which were lovely, and french 75 pops, which were even lovelier.
Something a little sweeter...
bittersweet chocolate maple whiskey
...and chocolate-y-er! The red wine fudgesicles are made of reduced red wine, chocolate, and milk. I may have cooked down my wine a bit too far and my fudgesicles didn't have that lovely deep burgundy shade of those photographed in the original recipe, but tasted still good. Should I add a bit more wine next time? Perhaps. The flower-shaped ones are the bittersweet chocolate maple whiskey pops, for which I also had to substitute whiskey for bourbon as specified in the recipe (and also, maple syrup for sugar, by choice), but it seemed to have worked alright.
There seem to be two different kinds in the category of poptails, and one is popsicles that have alcohol in themselves, i.e. boozy pops, like most of the poptails I've included so far. The other is more about how you serve them; popsicles themselves may or may not have alcohol in them, but you serve them in a glass, topped with your alcoholic beverage of choice. I've made two kinds; one is the blueberry pop in gin (and ginger ale), and the other is this.
As I said, I enjoy bubbly-based cocktails more than any other kind, and these are their popsicle versions. I picked a few fruits that I thought should go well with sparkling wine, and pureed them in the blender with a bit of honey and some fruit liqueur.
The strawberry peach pops were made in two layers for each of the fruits, while the mango orange pops got both the fruits blended up together.
And that's a wrap for my four-week popsicle making journey through the summer.
I hope you are enjoying the last of the summer and staying cool, perhaps with a popsicle in your hand! -cx