When Fany Gerson was growing up in Mexico City, her favorite ice cream flavor was tamarind. On special occasions, she would enjoy a float made from lime sorbet and Coca Cola. Those childhood treats — equal measures tropical, fruity, sweet, tangy — are fond memories, but say much about the ice cream culture of Mexico. Gerson introduces American readers to that rich, and largely unexplored, tradition in her new book, “Mexican Ice Cream: Beloved Recipes and Stories.”
Gerson, who now lives in New York and sells frozen treats at her La Newyorkina shops, traveled throughout Mexico to research regional recipes produced in small batches and sold at ice cream parlors, carts, and roadside stands. The author says that much like Italian gelato, the key to creating Mexican-style ice cream and sorbet is to treat the freshest ingredients simply. “You should be able to close your eyes and feel like you’re almost taking a bite out of the main ingredients,” Gerson says.
Q. What inspired Mexico’s strong ice cream tradition?
A. A lot of it has to do with the abundance of fruits that we have all around. In Mexico if you go to an ice cream stand or a shop, you will see a large portion of the flavors are made primarily using fruit. Also, ice cream making in a lot of places remains the way that it started many, many years ago using the hand paddle technique. That style of ice cream is called nieve garrafa. Basically, it’s a cylinder that is inside a wooden barrel and in between you have big chunks of ice and salt that are layered. And the garrafa is the cylinder. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned churn, but it’s not churned. It’s paddled. There’s no motor to it except one’s arm.
Q. Does that technique affect the texture?
A. It’s kind of like the difference between when you make a hand-kneaded bread versus a bread that is made in a machine. It’s not perfectly smooth. It often has some small crystals. We love textures, whether it’s sorbet or an ice cream. I think that it provides this handmade quality that is just very special.
Q. Will that translate when you use a home ice cream maker?
A. It’s actually kind of an easier translation. People who use home ice cream machines are never going to get as smooth a texture as if you use a professional ice cream machine.
Q. What are some of the flavors you use that may be new to people?
A. When it comes to fruit, I think of the cactus. The cactus paddle is a flavor that is used often to make juices and therefore to make some sorbets. Some other popular flavors that you find all around Mexico are guanabana, which is soursop, which is one of my personal favorite fruits. It tastes kind of between a pear and a lychee. It has a very meaty texture.
Q. Are there ice cream flavors that take you back to when you were growing up in Mexico City?
A. For me tamarind is always my favorite. That was the first one I would get. There are flavors like the horchata ice cream and queso fresco ice cream, which is kind of savory because the queso is kind of like a ricotta-style cheese. Cajeta, which is a goat’s milk caramel. There’s always this argument between Latins who grew up with dolce de leche. We believe cajeta is way superior. It has that sort of tanginess. In Mexico, we love things that are tart and tangy and not just straightforward. And then more modern flavors like avocado ice cream.
Q. What other ingredients can help capture the taste and feel of real Mexican ice cream?
A. One of the ingredients that I definitely think is worth seeking out is Mexican cinnamon. The Mexican cinnamon has a very different taste than the most common cinnamon, which is of the cassia variety. Oddly enough, the Mexican one is not very spicy. The dairy is definitely very different in Mexico. A lot of them use raw milk, which is not found readily in a lot of places in the United States.
Q. Do you make ice cream often at home?
A. I tried to stress that in the book: When you do homemade ice cream, in the same way that you do the nieve garrafa, they’re best enjoyed soon after making. They’re not meant to be held in the freezer for a month. Also, who can stay away from just eating?
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at email@example.com