Helado de paila, boldly flavored, extra-dense sorbet made by hand in Ecuador, comes in multiple flavors ranging from the more-familiar mora (blackberry), to exotic native fruits like naranjilla. Photo courtesy of andres valenzuela photography, www.andresvalenzuela.com Borrowing discoveries from abroad can bring unique tastes and textures to the final course on U.S. menus
By Christopher Koetke
As vice president of Laureate International Universities, Culinary Arts Center of Excellence, I work directly with culinary programs at more than 20 campuses in nine countries. Translated, I spend a lot of time traveling abroad. The upside to complicated schedules, extended air travel and aggravating customs interactions is that I get to spend time with inspirational chefs around the globe who so passionately share with me their beloved foods, culture and culinary traditions.
I am indebted to my colleagues and friends abroad for teaching me native foodways through the many tours of local markets, meals at neighborhood restaurants and endless snacking on diverse street foods. In these journeys, I encounter many culinary experiences that would translate well to the U.S. foodservice market and serve as inspiration for American chefs and menu developers.
Despite the vast diversity of global cuisines, there are common culinary threads around the world. Frozen desserts are one. From the mountain-top snow speedily delivered to Roman emperors for their aristocratic “snow cones” to the more recent invention of the ice cream cone at the 1904 World’s Fair, frozen desserts not only span history, but they also span the globe.
Through every country I’ve travelled, I’ve encountered some form of frozen dessert. What follows is a sampling of frozen treats that caught my attention in recent travels through Central and South America, and represent potential to please U.S. diners’ palates as well.
PALETAS: Popsicles with Passion
Mexico is home to a variety of unique frozen concoctions. For starters, interesting ice creams and sorbets abound, made from local fruits like the mamey, zapote negro and avocado that frequently add a unique note to an upscale dessert. In particular, zapote negro — called the “chocolate pudding fruit” because of its texture and flavor — seems to draw most attention.
Mexico is also home to paletas, intensely flavored popsicles that have journeyed into the States as a recent culinary trend. What makes paletas enticing is that they hearken back to the sticky, artificially flavored popsicles of American childhood, while at the same time being grown up, with unusual and natural flavors like tamarind, mango, peach, hibiscus, pineapple and cucumber. Some flavors (i.e., mango and cucumber) come spiked with red chile.
While these are often sold by street vendors, they could easily find their way into multiple foodservice categories in the United States. For instance, pastry chefs could upscale and internationalize the American idea of a popsicle by serving a flight of small pops or a paleta alongside a complex dessert, as we would a quenelle of ice cream.
In our health-focused society, all-natural paletas could provide a better alternative to popsicles on casual-dining and kids’ menus.
Paletas from Mexico, made with natural fruits and sometimes spiked with chile powder, offer a healthful alternative to sugary, U.S.-style popsicles. Photo courtesy of vianney rodriguez / sweetlifebake.com In Mexico, on-trend restaurants serve frozen Margarita paletas, which are a great idea for American bar menus. As cocktails take on a more prominent role in restaurants, why not move from liquid to solid with a selection of mini popsicles laced with different alcohols? Incorporating a bit of chamoy into these frozen cocktails would bring a bit of surprise and sparkle.
CHAMOYADA: Ice and Spice
Versions of the snow cone are also common to several countries. In Mexico, this street treat is called a frappe. Street vendors traditionally begin with a big chunk of ice that is freshly shaved to order. These irregularly shaped bits of ice make a frappe texturally interesting and refreshing. Brightly colored flavored syrups are pumped or poured over the ice until it’s saturated. Up to this point, except for the hand-shaved ice, this is not that different from American snow cones.
Enter the chamoyada snow cone. This unusual flavoring consists of chamoy, a bright-red liquid or powder that powerfully combines sweet, sour, heat from the pequin pepper and salt. This snow cone is doused in liquid chamoy along with a sprinkle of chamoy powder and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. The result is an atomic taste sensation that lights up all your taste buds at once.
As “spicy” is now part of the dessert flavor spectrum, chamoy would add not only heat to desserts but also acidity and sweetness. While a chamoy snow cone could be served as an interesting dessert component, it could also pave the way for frappes made tableside and doused with intriguing and creative flavors.
CAMELADO: Cool Cubes
Before leaving Mexico, one more frozen treat deserves mention. The sundae-like camelado layers scoops of vanilla ice cream with cubes of strongly flavored coffee gelatin in a tall glass. Curiously, it is most often served as a staple dessert in Japanese restaurants in Mexico, but according to my Mexican colleagues, it is nonetheless a Mexican invention.
Other restaurants have expanded on the camelado by pairing different flavors of gelatin cubes and ice cream; one particularly tasty variation was a mini sundae of coconut ice cream and green-tea gelatin cubes.
The textural contrasts in a camelado elevate the sundae experience and the intense flavors that can be infused into the jiggly cubes bring great complexity to an ice cream dessert.
CHURCHILL: Deluxe Decadence
Moving south into Costa Rica, there is an oddly named dessert that originated in the Pacific tourist port of Puntarenas. Along the beach, outdoor concession stands and cafés offer the notorious Churchill; served overflowing a tall, old-fashioned fountain glass, the presentation is imposing.
The Churchill starts with freshly shaved ice that is soaked in bright-red cola syrup and topped with spoonfuls of sweetened milk powder and condensed milk. At this point, the preparation is called a granizado, which is the local name for a snow cone. It becomes a Churchill after it is topped with vanilla ice cream and served with additional condensed milk and chocolate syrup on the side.
The dish was named for Winston Churchill, who visited this picturesque town and asked for a scoop of ice cream to be served atop his granizado. It caught on and continues to be popular today.
Costa Rica’s Churchill is an eye-popping blend of shaved ice, cola syrup and condensed milk, topped with vanilla ice cream and served with a side of chocolate syrup. Photo courtesy of christopher koetke. In the United States, the concept of a Churchill could be varied to incorporate flavors like chocolate milk powder, syrups made from different berries or acidic blood orange, and assorted ice creams, like bitter chocolate or coffee. It could be served in all of its enormous decadence or be downsized as a small dessert. Large or small, this multi-layered frozen treat blends comfort and playfulness.
HELADO: Labor Makes Flavor
Continuing south, Ecuador is a small and incredibly diverse country boasting a long list of unique Amazonian fruits that make great frozen desserts. One is helado de paila, an Ecuadorian sorbet. Paila is the Spanish word for the large bowl, typically made of brass, in which the sorbet is made. What makes helado de paila unique is the hand-made process in which the fruit juice is stirred continuously while simultaneously spinning the bowl over salted ice.
The result of this manual process is a boldly flavored and unusually dense sorbet due to the small amount of air that is incorporated during the freezing process. Helado de paila shops prepare multiple flavors by hand; popular varieties range from the familiar — blackberry and fig — to intriguing local fruits like naranjilla, taxo, araza and guanábana.
TAPIOCA: Flavor and Texture
Brazil is another country with a diverse offering of intriguing fruits that find their way into sorbets and ice creams, including açai, cupuaçu, fruta do conde and graviola. Many of these fruits are being imported into the United States as frozen purees.
Brazil, however, is also the land of manioc. Manioc, in its many different forms, has provided sustenance to a large population for many years. Thus, it should come as no surprise that one of the most common Brazilian ice cream flavors is tapioca, which produces a subtle ice cream reminiscent of fresh coconut with an earthy note.
Here, ice cream is topped with tapioca pearls, which are also commonly found in bubble tea. Like the gel cubes in Mexico, these pearls can be made of different ingredients and flavors. One that particularly stood out — both from a color and taste perspective — was made with red wine. Tapioca pearls add a chewy, textural variation to a dish of ice cream.
Another Brazilian treat that bears a quick mention is decadent Brazilian nut fudge, which is not unlike our chocolate fudge but spiked with Brazilian nuts. It, too, provides a flavor punch and a great textural contrast. Brazilian nut fudge certainly would find a happy home in the United States atop ice cream or as part of a more complex dessert, as it combines comfort with a twist.
Frozen desserts are truly a global phenomena with common themes like chewy add-ins and toppings, decadent flavors and the ubiquitous snow-cone format. While the themes may repeat from country to country, it is the variations that provide inspiration for chefs in this country.
Why not experiment with chamoy, flights of paletas, textural enhancements as in the camelado or Churchill, or tableside snow cones? By doing so, you’ll be introducing American diners to enticing new flavors and preparations while tapping into the global love and appreciation for frozen desserts.