Pop go the gourmet popsicles, a cool summer trend

Chocolate with salted caramel brownie popsicles at Lil' Pop Shop. ( STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )
Chocolate with salted caramel brownie popsicles at Lil' Pop Shop. ( STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )
Posted: July 13, 2012

FOOD WRITERS, and their editors, fall in love with certain turns of phrase, but none is so ubiquitous and irritating as this one: "[FILL IN BLANK] is the new cupcake."

Macaroons are the new cupcake. Pies are the new cupcake. Pudding is the new cupcake. Marshmallows are the new cupcake. Anything sweet and handheld and artisan — and pricey — will undoubtedly be called The New Cupcake.

Keeping in mind that the cupcake has been a supposed "fad" since the late 1990s, when Carrie Bradshaw ate one on "Sex and the City" (doesn't that make you feel old, ladies?), and considering that hipsters have been misguidedly calling cupcakes "over" for the better part of the 21st century, I propose that we finally retire this hackneyed trope of The New Cupcake.

Actually, let's retire it next week. Because this week it's really hot and I want to write about popsicles and really — trust me — popsicles are, like, the new cupcake. At least that's what I'm hearing. And seeing: As I wandered up Walnut Street toward Rittenhouse Square last Saturday, I was struck by the crazy number of adults who had popsicles in their mouths.

"The popsicle is the new cupcake. I could see the Food Network someday soon doing ‘Popsicle Wars' instead of ‘Cupcake Wars,'" said Issa Ostrander, whose company, Mompops — which he runs with his mother, based in Dowingtown — just so happens to sell gourmet popsicles at places like the Rittenhouse Farmers Market for $2.50 a pop. These popsicles are dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, nut-free and "100 percent vegan." Please do not let any of that put you off: The watermelon lime, orange banana, and cold-brewed mocha latte pops I tasted were absolutely delicious and worth it.

But Mompops isn't the only source of awesome popsicles in the city. In fact, Philadelphia may be right at the cusp of a popsicle tipping point. (And that's popsicle as in gourmet frozen treats, not the trademarked Popsicle brand in your supermarket freezer aisle.)

My favorite spot is the Lil' Pop Shop in West Philly (perfectly situated between Honest Tom's Taco Shop and Local 44), which a few weeks ago was named among Food & Wine magazine's "Best Popsicles in the U.S." It's quite an accolade for the shop, especially since it only opened in May.

The Lil' Pop Shop is the brainchild of Jeanne Chang, a California native who moved here about a year ago with her family (after a stint in Durham, N.C., while her husband was at Duke University), drawn to the leafy, diverse, progressive West Philly neighborhood.

Chang was trained as a pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, Calif., and had always wanted to start a bakery, something that required a lot of capital and would be tricky with her 3-year-old child in tow. She'd been a fan of a shop called Locopops in Durham and had been experimenting with popsicles in her kitchen for about a year before deciding to take the leap.

"Why popsicles?" asks Chang. "It's pretty straightforward. It seemed pretty manageable as a starter business. Plus, I love the idea that you can make a single product and yet you can be so creative with it."

How creative? How about goat cheese and black raspberries? Avocado and coconut? Rosemary and peaches? Chocolate and salted caramel brownie? Vietnamese coffee? When I visited the shop, Chang had fresh cantaloupes she planned to combine with rose syrup and cardamom, and a bag of fresh corn she intended to experiment with. Price for all this creativity: $3.

Yes, yes, I know. This is where you, dearest cynical Daily News reader, roll your eyes. Well, stop. These popsicles are a far cry from thoseDayGlo ice sticks you used to get after your Little League game. Or the Bomb Pops or Fudgsicles you had on a summer night as a kid. Not that there's anything wrong with those. Nostalgia seems to be a major factor driving the popsicles resurgence. "Popsicles remind me of childhood," Chang said. "One of my earliest memories is eating a root beer Popsicle in grade school."

But what you're paying for here is something even more special, probably the best value and healthiest treat you'll find in the city during this disgustingly hot summer. When it comes to popsicles, there's very little magic involved. The artisan method in this case is not too different from the one many of us used at home.

Popsicles at Lil' Pop Shop and Mompops are made from fresh, locally sourced fruit puree and either simple syrup (Chang's recipe) or agave nectar (Ostrander's).

The big difference is how quickly the freezing process happens. Both Chang and Ostrander use commercial popsicle makers than can freeze almost 100 pops at once, at minus-29 degrees, in about 15 minutes. In your home freezer, this process would take several hours, and in that time ice crystals would form, creating a crust of ice. You can taste the difference in the silky texture of Chang's and Ostrander's pops.

This popsicle-freezing secret is one reason many pop fans have snapped up a trendy kitchen toy called the Zoku Quick Pop Maker, which uses the same method as commercial popsicle makers. "Just like with cupcakes, you can make great popsicles at home," Ostrander said. "But people always tell me, ‘It just doesn't taste as good as yours.' "

Lil’ Pop Shop is at 265 S. 44th St., 215-222-5829. Its cart can be found at Clark Park on Saturdays and at The Porch at 30th Street Station from 4-8 p.m. Fridays and noon-6 p.m. Sundays in July.

Find Mompops at specialty retailers in the region, including Green Aisle Grocery and Metropolitan Bakery. The Mompops cart rotates around area farmers markets such as The Porch at 30th Street Station and at Rittenhouse, Phoenixville and East Goshen markets. Details at mompops.net.

Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

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