Food & Drink

Mexican ice cream’s vivid, vibrant flavors can be re-created at home

Fany Gerson’s new cookbook, "Mexican Ice Cream."
Fany Gerson’s new cookbook, "Mexican Ice Cream." Ten Speed Press

If you’re one of those people who believes summer fun came to a screeching halt when the sun went down on Labor Day, I’ve got good news.

Pack away your white slacks and flip-flops, if you must, but Fany Gerson can help you extend the season with her new collection, “Mexican Ice Cream: Beloved Recipes and Stories.”

Gerson, the New York-based owner of La Newyorkina, an artisanal ice cream and pastry shop, previously celebrated her Mexico City roots with “My Sweet Mexico,” a baking guide nominated for a James Beard cookbook award, and “Paletas,” a paean to vividly flavored ice pops. She now turns her attention to the creamy helado (ice cream) and refreshing sorbete (sorbet) that many Mexicans rely upon to help beat the year-round heat.

While a visit to the ice cream mecca of Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Guanajuato should be on everybody’s bucket list, you can just venture to your kitchen to re-create the vibrant tastes dipped by vendors in city parks and roadside stands.

Gerson, recalling her own experiences sampling regional specialties across Mexico, writes: “I made up my mind to bring handmade Mexican ice cream and frozen treats to the States so more people could discover the same delicious flavors.”

So, other than distinctive varieties created from seasonal, local ingredients, what makes Mexican ice cream different from what we enjoy in the United States?

Gerson describes it as closer to dense Italian gelato in its texture than its lighter American cousin, which usually starts with an egg-custard base and is whipped with air for a fluffy consistency.

In Mexico, men usually take the labor-intensive job of crafting ice cream in large metal pails tucked into ice-filled barrels. They stir and scrape the mixture with long wooden paddles, creating a treat that is best consumed the same day.

Traditional Mexican ice cream trades cream for raw milk from grass-fed cows. With few exceptions – like the signature ice cream of Oaxaca, leche quemada, or literally, burnt milk – Gerson’s recipes recognize that raw milk is harder to find in the U.S. and instead calls for pasteurized milk.

The addition of exotic fruit, chiles or other top-quality flavorings compensate for any lack of richness. At Gerson’s New York storefront, she relies on a variety of imported items, such as chocolate from Oaxaca and vanilla bean from Veracruz. These and other special ingredients she includes, such as sour tamarind pulp or piloncillo, a type of unrefined cane sugar, should be found at Latin American grocery stores or tiendas.

Thanks to the ubiquity of modern ice cream makers, most of which mimic the traditional Mexican method with a hard plastic paddle scraping against a revolving frozen cylinder, it’s a whole lot easier to make small batches of Mexican-style ice cream or sorbet in your kitchen. Note that Gerson sneaks cream into a few recipes to make it easier for home cooks to produce reliable results.

This is the case with Walnut Ice Cream with Pomegranate, which she created as a nod to chiles en nogada. The dish traditionally is served in September to mark Mexico’s Independence Day on Sept. 16. While it omits the spiced meat and fruit that fills roasted poblano peppers, the ice cream is true to the walnut sauce that tops the dish. That creamy flavor gets an unexpected boost from soft goat cheese and sherry, and a crunchy finish from pomegranate seeds.

Gerson applies the same care and attention to detail in her recipes for fruit sorbets, or nieves de agua. No dairy is needed for satisfying and vegan-friendly results, but avocados contribute to the creamy appeal of Avocado-Passion Fruit Sorbet.

Gerson makes no pretense of “Mexican Ice Cream” serving as a comprehensive look at the country’s justifiably famous treats. In fact, she openly regrets not being able to include more of her favorites, some of which she felt would be substandard if made with less than perfect local fruit. I flipped the pages without luck looking for beso de ángel, or “angel kiss,” a luscious Dolores Hidalgo standard featuring plump cherries (and which Gerson teasingly references in the introduction).

Still, the collection is a passport-free trip to often exotic (and sometimes spicy) flavors you’re not likely to encounter in an American ice cream shop or grocery freezer case. So instead of bidding farewell to summer, keep those flip-flops close by, crack open this book and say “Si, quiero helado!”

Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh. She can be reached at or via Twitter at @jwlucasnc.

Want to find Mexican ice cream?

La Michoacána Ice Cream, , 6301 N. Tryon St. and 6300 South Blvd., are branches of a well-known franchise based in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which is nearly as well known for its ice cream and culinary traditions as its pre-Hispanic history and colonial architecture. Flavors usually include creamy guanabana (soursop), cajeta (goat’s milk caramel), queso (fresh cheese) and tuna (prickly pear) sorbet.

Walnut Ice Cream with Pomegranate (Helado de Nogada)

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

4 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled

2 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 1/2 cups walnuts, soaked in water or frozen to keep from turning brown

1/2 teaspoon ground Mexican cinnamon

2 tablespoons sherry

1 cup pomegranate seeds

Partially fill a large bowl with ice and water, place a medium bowl in the ice water, and set a fine-mesh strainer across the top.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and 1/4 cup of the milk.

In a saucepan, combine the remaining 1 3/4 cups of milk with the cream, sugar and salt and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine and stir it into the milk mixture. Cook, stirring continuously, until the mixture returns to a simmer and has thickened slightly, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the goat cheese and cream cheese, and whisk until smooth. Pour the mixture through the strainer into the prepared bowl and stir until cool.

In a blender, working in two batches, puree the cooled milk mixture and the walnuts until the nuts are pulverized (some small bits may remain), 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the cinnamon and sherry. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours or up to 4 hours.

Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When the ice cream has finished churning, mix in the pomegranate seeds. 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.

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Reprinted with permission from “Mexican Ice Cream: Beloved Recipes and Stories” by Fany Gerson (Ten Speed Press)

Avocado-Passion Fruit Sorbet (Nieve de Aguacate con Maracuyá)

Look for frozen passion fruit puree in Latin American markets and specialty grocery stores.

2 cups fresh or thawed frozen passion fruit puree

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 small ripe avocados

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

In a small saucepan, combine the passion fruit puree and sugar. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Cut the avocados in half lengthwise. Remove the pits and scoop the flesh into a blender or food processor. Add the cooled passion fruit mixture and the salt and process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the blender jar or bowl as needed. Add the lime juice and process just until combined. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover and refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours.

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.

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Reprinted with permission from “Mexican Ice Cream: Beloved Recipes and Stories” by Fany Gerson (Ten Speed Press)