Winter Ice

Winter Ice

The only snowy stuff you’re likely to find in L.A. this month is sweet and surprising.

By Leslie Bilderback 02/07/2014

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Sure, it’s the middle of winter. But this is Southern California, which is why I am currently obsessed with frozen desserts.

This obsession began over the holidays, when, in a stroke of genius, we decided to forgo the traditional mayhem and hightail it out of town. We spent Christmas under the palm trees of Maui, where, at long last, I was able to do quantitative research on Hawaiian shave ice. What began as an afternoon snack quickly became an obsession — so much so that I was able to obtain, complete and redeem a frequent buyer’s card, which entitled me to a free final serving of frozen heaven on the way to the airport for the flight home

Sure, it’s the middle of winter. But this is Southern California, which is why I am currently obsessed with frozen desserts.

This obsession began over the holidays, when, in a stroke of genius, we decided to forgo the traditional mayhem and hightail it out of town. We spent Christmas under the palm trees of Maui, where, at long last, I was able to do quantitative research on Hawaiian shave ice. What began as an afternoon snack quickly became an obsession — so much so that I was able to obtain, complete and redeem a frequent buyer’s card, which entitled me to a free final serving of frozen heaven on the way to the airport for the flight home.

Maybe it was the environment. Or perhaps the company. But I found Hawaiian shave ice to be the perfect incarnation of dessert. It encompassed all the things I require in a fine dessert — the things I have preached to my students for years. The presentation was unique, the textural composition varied and interesting, the flavors exciting and unexpected, the history fascinating. 

Shave ice is nothing like the snow cone we get on the mainland. The ice is like fluffy snow — powdery fine and packable. The fine texture allows the syrups (that are nothing like the cough-syrupy crap we have here) to be absorbed into, rather than sink through, the ice. They were more like juices and nectars extracted from actual fruit, not concoctions of corn syrup and food coloring. There were no bubblegum or cotton candy flavors on the menu. They served guava, pineapple, sweet banana, dragon fruit, mango, lychee, papaya — every tropical fruit you could possibly imagine. There were also special syrup blends offered by every stand, including Tiger’s Blood (a mix of coconut with cherry, strawberry or watermelon) and POG (passion fruit, orange and guava). You had the option of topping off your succulent fruit flavors with a “snow cap,” which means a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk, a little thinner and less cloying than the stuff I bake with. The result is a texture that sits perfectly at the sweet spot between creamy and icy.  

But, for me, the best part was packing the ice with hidden elements at the bottom, to be revealed only at the end of my snowy adventure. Just when you thought the enjoyment was over, surprise! Hidden at the bottom of your ice was a creamy scoop of bright coconut, macadamia or rich vanilla ice cream. Better still, we could opt for even more embellishment in the form of chewy mochi balls or sweet azuki beans, so exotic and welcome. And the finishing touch? Li hing mui, a heaven-sent (actually, Chinese-sent) condiment, composed of dried, salted plums pulverized into a bright pink powder. A sprinkle of this tangy, salty powder on top of your icy creation takes this frozen delight into the stratosphere of gastronomic delight. (Yeah. I like it.)

Hawaiians did not invent this idea, but they certainly embraced it wholeheartedly. Japan lays claim to that honor, having perfected kakigori (sometimes marketed as shirokuma, which means “polar bear”) during the Edo period (1603–1867). They are clearly responsible for bringing that treat to Hawaii, for which I am eternally grateful. 

Once we got home and my shave-ice withdrawal kicked in, it occurred to me that such a thing must be available in Los Angeles. We have everything here. And sure enough, to my delight I found several shave-ice outlets, the best of which is Brian’s Shave Ice on the Westside. (They have another shop in Tarzana.) But that’s not all I found. There are similar shave-ice desserts (most of which predate the Hawaiian version) from all over the globe — all available in the Southland for our dining pleasure. 

In Koreatown the snowy dessert is patbingsu: a bowl of fruits, jellies, red beans and tteok rice cake (similar to Japanese mochi) topped with shaved ice, followed by syrups, condensed milk, ice cream and — wait for it — cereal. Fruity Pebbles seems to be the popular choice. 

Thai Town’s version, nam kaeng sai, is similar in concept, but with more exotic fillings, including taro, black sticky rice, young coconut and sweet lotus root. The popular choice for toppings is bright red sala syrup, made from palm fruit. And here they top the whole thing off with bread cubes. Yep. Bread cubes. Like all of these desserts, the magic happens not in the eating of each component, but in the mixing and mingling of them. In this instance, the bread cubes act as a flavor sponge. 

Indonesia’s es campur means “mixed ice,” and it really is more like ice than snow. Chunky and crunchy, it definitely quenches on a hot day. The same characters show up here — fruits, azuki beans, sweetened condensed milk — but they are also really into jellies. Extracted from the leaves of a variety of herbs in the mint family, grass jelly, black jelly, green jelly and the like are used throughout Asia in desserts and beverages, like exotic Jell-o Jigglers. You will often see the addition of avocado (Calm down, people, it is a fruit after all) and jackfruit, a huge tree fruit that tastes like an apple-pineapple-mango-banana mix and has an odor similar to, but not as nasty as, the durian. 

The Taiwanese “ice slush” chhoah-peng is similar to the rest — sweet beans (both red and green), taro, tapioca and jelly cubes under light snowy ice, but with considerably less sweet syrup over the top. The Chinese version, baobing, offers all those fillings and more — sweet peanuts, mung beans, yams — doused with cane syrup, which is substantially sweeter. 

Ice kachang, meaning “ice bean,” is 

Singapore’s version, so you can expect a sweet bean surprise. But you will also find jackfruit, sweet corn and rose water. 

As you have probably guessed, similar icy desserts are found elsewhere around the globe. Cuba’s variation, granizados, the Spanish word for “hailstones,” is found throughout Miami. The Dominicans call their snow cones frío frío. Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela have raspados — which is from the word raspa, or “scrape.” Puerto Rican piragua is named for the pyramidal shape they are scooped into. In the Philippines they enjoy halo-halò (mix-mix), which you can get at the drive-through window at Jollibee, the Filipino fast-food joint with (joyous news!) two locations within a 10-minute drive from my house. 

While for me, the pleasure of Hawaiian shave ice is in the excavation and discovery, the rest of these icy desserts require thoughtful mixing and blending, so that the myriad textures are experienced simultaneously and repeatedly. They are simply not complete until they are mixed — the syrup, sweetened condensed milk and chewy chunks of beany-jelly-junk just one amalgam of yum.

Given that all these ice desserts are available here in L.A., there is no reason for me to ever eat a traditional “American-style” snow cone again. Still, there remains a soft spot in my heart for our mainland snow cone. It evokes childhood memories of hot summers walking barefoot on the splintery boardwalk, creepy carny workers with bad teeth and sad elephants painting messy pictures with paintbrushes taped to their trunks. And snow cones were a cheap and easy fundraising event for my girls’ Girl Scout troop, which operated a snow cone booth every Fourth of July when my kids were little and Girl Scoutable. Ah, memories of little girl hands dripping in syrup — and dollar bills covered in syrup — like my shoes and the inside of my car. Ugh. Never mind. 

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and author of MUG CAKES: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin’s Griffin). The South Pasadena resident teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

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