Vanilla and chocolate remain the top-selling ice cream flavors in the United States, but when asked their first choice, most people surveyed mention something a little more interesting.
At La Flor de Michoacan’s four Southern Nevada ice cream shops, those may be dragonfruit (pitaya, in Spanish), pine nut (piñon) or rose petal (rosas).
“We have our own flavors,” owner Rosie Chavez said. “The ice cream is traditional.”
Fany Gerson, author of the new book “Mexican Ice Cream: Beloved Recipes and Stories,” said Mexican ice cream is special for many reasons.
“One of the things that makes it unique is the regionality,” she said. “Different parts of Mexico have very specific foods and sometimes those flavors are not just specific to an area of the country, but to a little town.”
These family-run businesses may date back generations, she said, and many still churn the ice cream by hand with wooden paddles in metal cylinders surrounded by barrels of ice and salt.
In her book, Gerson said the presence of ice cream in Mexico dates back centuries, when it was based on snow collected from the tops of volcanoes and reserved for the elite, a practice that continued through Spanish conquest of the region in the 1500s.
That exclusivity ended with independence in the 1800s, and the arrival of European ice-making machines spread the practice.
Waves of Italian immigrants in the early 20th century brought their gelato-making traditions, which is why Mexican ice cream and Italian gelato are similar in texture and richness.
Gerson said the preponderance of fruits in Mexico, and therefore in the Mexican diet, is reflected in the culture’s ice cream.
“A large portion of them are fruit-based, and we have a lot of sorbets,” she said. “In a classic American ice cream shop or gelato store, you may have a couple of fruit options. With Mexican shops, it’s reversed. To us those are very exciting flavors.”
They also can be spicy flavors, with chili powder sprinkled on the ice cream or worked into it. A classic combination is chili with mango, sometimes with chamoy, a pickled plum sauce.
“We like it seasoned,” Gerson said.
In her New York shops, La Newyorkina Mexican Ice & Sweets, the most popular ice-cream flavors are horchata, Mexican chocolate — “everybody likes that” — and tres leches.
“I think that for the most part, Americans and even Mexican-Americans tend to gravitate to the flavors that are kind of sweeter, they’re more familiar to them,” she said. “They’re an entryway for them to be more adventurous. We have an avocado ice cream and we’ve had an amazing response to that, so it’s evolving.”
Chavez said another popular ice cream at La Flor de Michoacan is made of chongos zamoranos, a Michoacan specialty of milk curds — sort of like cheese, but sweet instead of salty — mixed with milk, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla.
“We make avocado, we make celery,” she said. “We have 70 flavors,” including some conventional American ones, such as mint chip.
They also serve frozen pops, or paletas, in flavors including guava and gazpacho, and shaved ice in flavors that include plum and pecan.
Gerson said she wrote “Mexican Ice Cream” to highlight an overlooked tradition.
“Everything I do, with the books and the business, is about sharing the sweetness of Mexico,” she said. “For the most part, I think people are very surprised that there are very strong sweet — and especially ice cream — traditions in Mexico. There are a lot of things being lost. For me it was a way to document and try to give continuity — celebrate those people who are trying to keep these traditions alive.”
Horchata ice cream
1/3 cup almonds
1/3 cup long-grain rice
1 3-inch piece Mexican cinnamon
4 cups half and half
5 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Ground Mexican cinnamon, for sprinkling
In a large saucepan, toast the almonds, rice and cinnamon over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the almonds are slightly golden and the cinnamon is very fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the half and half, stir to combine and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat, cover and allow to steep for 2 hours.
In a blender, working in two batches, puree the almond mixture until the nuts are pulverized and resemble a coarse flour. Pour each batch through a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl and press down on the solids with a spatula or spoon to extract as much liquid as possible; discard the solids in the strainer. Blend the liquid in batches and strain once more; discard any solids left in the strainer.
Partially fill a large bowl with ice and water, place a medium bowl in the ice water and set the fine-mesh strainer across the top.
Return the strained liquid to the saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a heatproof bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. Gradually ladle in about half of the hot liquid while whisking continuously. Whisk this mixture into the liquid in the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. Pour the custard through the strainer into the prepared bowl, add the salt and vanilla and stir until cool. Remove the bowl from the ice bath, cover and refrigerate until the custard is cold, at least 3 hours or up to overnight.
Whisk the custard to recombine. Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For a soft consistency, serve the ice cream right away; for a firmer consistency, transfer it to a container, cover and allow to harden in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. Serve the ice cream sprinkled with ground Mexican cinnamon.
Makes about 1 quart.
Deviled mango sorbet
1/3 cup water
1 cup sugar
3 piquin chiles
2 1/2 pounds ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted and diced (about 5 3/4 cups)
Juice of 1 lime
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground piquin chile or cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
In a small saucepan, combine the water and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat, stir in the whole chiles and allow to cool for 1 hour.
Remove and discard the chiles from the sugar syrup. In a blender, combine the sugar syrup and diced mangoes and puree until smooth. Add the lime juice, salt and ground chile and blend to combine. Taste the puree and, if desired, mix in additional ground chile, keeping in mind that once frozen, the sorbet will taste a little less spicy.
Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For a soft consistency, serve the sorbet right away; for a firmer consistency, transfer it to a container, cover and allow to harden in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours.
Makes about 1 quart.
Avocado ice cream
3 ripe Hass avocados
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Halve and pit the avocados and scoop the flesh into a blender. Add the milk, lime juice, sugar and salt and puree until smooth. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover and refrigerate until the base is cold, about 2 hours.
Whisk the base to recombine. Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For a soft consistency, serve the ice cream right away; for a firmer consistency, transfer it to a container, cover and allow to harden in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours.
Makes about 1 1/4 quarts.
Recipes from “Mexican Ice Cream”
Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.