Whenever people say they love summer, I have to assume their air conditioning situation is better than mine. If I could find a way to spend July and August in a pool with a bottomless Michelada and no threat of skin cancer, it seems possible I might hate summer less. As things stand, I spend most of my time boxed up in my apartment, waiting for the heat rage to flatten into despondence so I can get some work done.
That is, until recently, when I discovered a neat trick: It’s near impossible to feel mad or despondent while you’re eating a popsicle. They are cooling, which is good for morale. They are crazy delicious. And for the most part, they’re not even that bad for you; some popsicles are healthy enough to pass for breakfast, and at worst they make a modest dessert.
I gather that NYC and the whole of Mexico are vast wonderlands filled with artisanal popsicle purveyors. Unfortunately, I live in Chicago, where people still seem suspicious of frozen yogurt. Since most grocery store pops are filled with corn syrup and smell like magic markers, I decided to make some at home. You can, too.
Like almost all cookware, popsicle-making equipment is as simple or as fancy as you want it to be. Whether you’re a pervert, a raver, a psychopath, a dork, or an asshole, in the year 2013, I guarantee there’s an apparatus out there that is just right for you. Let’s review.
Technically, pretty much any vessel can be converted into a popsicle mold. Probably the cheapest rig would be Dixie cups + wooden popsicle sticks. This is a decent option if you’re broke or on vacation or having a party, but know that it’s prone to spills, and freezer spills are the absolute worst. Shot glasses work well with the same caveat. Silicone ice cube trays are even better if you happen to have some on hand.
But honestly, if you plan to make popsicles more than once this summer, you should invest in a dedicated solution.
Aesthetically, it’s hard to beat classic popsicle molds, but in practice these things are the pits. The design of the lid is poor, for one thing. Moreover, any mold made of plastic requires you to use hot water to unmold the pop, which feels vaguely treacherous. I recommend Zoku’s clever silicone line, which lets you peel popsicles out from the individual molds with no fuss. Try this one or this one, which both retail for well under $20.
Popsicles on Demand
Instant popsicle makers like the this one are pretty much pure wizard magic, cutting the interminable time the pops spend freezing down to about 10 minutes. Instant popsicles tend to have an excellent creamy texture and, of course, they don’t develop freezer burn. Highly recommended.
That said, there remains something deeply unsatisfying about the instant popsicle experience, at least at first. The plastic stick is very wide and awkward to eat around. The pop itself is a tad too small. And heaven help you if you try to extract it too soon. You’ll have no choice but to scrape it out of the machine with a knife like an animal.
Everyone has a different idea about what a popsicle should be, and here is mine: simple, light, and refreshing. In no way should your preparation resemble batter or frosting or fudge. Three or four ingredients is usually plenty, and none of them should be heavy cream or butter. (That’s actually not a dig at She Who Must Not Be Named; these recipes are everywhere!) That said, I fully endorse the use of full-fat milk and yogurt for taste and texture purposes. Anything less will be icy and wan.
As far as kitchen experiments go, popsicles are low-risk, high-reward. It’s fun to futz around with different flavors until you land on something you really like. (Bonus: popsicles are a great way to use up stuff in your fridge that’s about to go off, like mushy fruit and elderly dairy.) Inevitably, you will fail. Perhaps one night after a few drinks you have a brilliant idea for a sparkling water popsicle that doesn’t exactly pan out. Or maybe you’ve made a mango mixture with chiles that looks like a big bowl of sick. So what? In less than 10 minutes you can turn out a batch of something better, no harm done.
The obvious place to start is fruit juice. Squeeze your own, buy it fresh, or just use something off the shelf (mmm, Concord grape). The next level is fruit purees, which are delicious and healthier than juice. While you don’t need any special tools to make popsicles apart from the molds, a hand blender will make everything easier. You can make excellent fruit puree pops out of pretty much anything by adding something sweet and a healthy squirt of lemon.
Once you get the hang of things you can experiment with whatever ingredients your hungry heart desires: vegetables, sodas, teas, liquors, etc. Soon you’ll be the King Midas of your kitchen, with everything you touch turning into delicious popsicles.
If you’re feeling ambitious right out of the gate, there are two great cookbooks I recommend: Paletas and People’s Pops. Both contain some unusual ideas that will bring you one step closer to the dream (my dream?) of eating popsicles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are also, of course, many recipes on the web, though in my opinion too many of them are unnecessarily complicated or totally slapdash. I’m including a handful of my own recipes below, which are likely both.
The difficulty with popsicle recipes in general is the sweetener situation. Personal preference and variation amongst fruits means that any measurements you see should be considered a suggestion. To avoid overdoing it, add the sweet stuff one tablespoon at a time until the mixture is slightly more sickening than something you would drink. (Freezing dulls flavors.) I usually prefer sugar because it’s less assertive than agave, maple syrup, or honey, but as with everything in life, the results will be best if you do you.
Yield: 5 to 8 pudding pops
Pretty much every pudding pop recipe I’ve ever seen calls for instant pudding. Regular pudding takes like two extra minutes and tastes infinitely better. Let’s do this right.
1 package cook & serve pudding (I like chocolate)
2.25 cups whole milk
Whisk the pudding mix and 2 cups of the milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove to a bowl off the heat as soon as the mixture begins to boil. Let stand for about 10 minutes—enough time for the pudding to partially cool, but not enough time for it to set. (Don’t worry, the recipe has been optimized for all the warm pudding you will eat during this time.) Stir in a quarter cup of cold milk. If you left the pudding too long, add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the mixture pours easily. Mold, freeze, and serve with your favorite episode of The Cosby Show.
Extreme Lemon Pops
Yield: 7 to 10 popsicles
Intensely sweet and lemony, these popsicles are not messing around. To take the edge off, stir in lots of plain yogurt.
1 cup sugar
0.5 cup water
Combine the sugar and the water in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is just about to boil. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, peel and segment the lemons, removing the pith and seeds as you go. Puree the segments. (If you have more or less than 2 cups of lemon puree, tweak your sugar input accordingly.) Stir in the cooled syrup, mold, and freeze.
Basic Breakfast Pops
Yield: 6 to 10 popsicles
I prefer these popsicles plain, but you could easily add fruit.
1.5 cups plain unsweetened Greek yogurt
1 cup whole milk
1 cup granola
Whisk the yogurt and milk in a bowl until smooth. Stir in the granola. Mold, freeze, and serve. Hey, good job, you’re done.
The Full Nilsson
Yield: 6 to 9 Nilssons
1.25 cups fresh lime juice (maybe 10-12 limes)
10 tablespoons sugar
1.25 cups full-fat coconut milk (I like Chaokoh brand)
Combine the lime juice and the sugar in a bowl. Let stand for a minute or two to let the sugar dissolve. Stir in the coconut milk. Mold, freeze, and surrender the remains of your day to a first-rate Internet k-hole.
Kim O’Connor is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. You can find her on Twitter.