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As temperatures rise across the country — signaling the start of summer is finally here — many people will be looking for ways to stay cool. But while some of us go to the beach, others take a tastier tactic. Try these quirky and chilly regional summer treats around the U.S. this summer — we promise your taste buds will thank you later.
Shave Ice, Hawaii
Eating shave ice is a bit like what we’d imagine it would feel like eating a fluffy, colorful, sweet cloud. Think sno-cones but finer and softer. The treat dates back to the Heian period in Japan, when royals savored a treat made from ice shaved off blocks and sweetened with syrup. In Japan, they called it kakigōri. Japanese immigrants first arrived in Hawaii in the 1880s, and brought with them a love of shave ice. In the early 1900s, some of these immigrants ran small shops for plantation workers where they sold shave ice — from there, its popularity took off, and it was ubiquitous across Hawaii by the 1950s. Locals all have a favorite flavor to top their shave ice — from lilikoi (passionfruit) to haupia (creamy sweet coconut).
Blue Moon Ice Cream, The Midwest
Blue Moon, an ice cream from the upper Midwest described as “smurf-blue, marshmallow-sweet” by the Chicago Tribune, has a hotly debated flavor. Some claim it tastes like almonds, some say like fruity cereal, and others point to cotton candy. Ask anyone in the Midwest, and you’re likely to get a different answer. The origin of the ice cream is just as murky. It’s often attributed to Sherman Dairy Products in Michigan, though the company says it wasn’t their invention. Others claim a Milwaukee-based flavor chemist named Bill Sidon invented Blue Moon ice cream in the 1950s, but his family says he never mentioned the creation — and trademark papers show the flavor was already in use by the 1930s, which is when it began showing up in local news reports. Today you can find it in ice cream shops and grocery stores from Iowa to Ohio, and the summery treat is particularly popular in Wisconsin.
Indigenous peoples in Alaska have been making akutaq — also known as Eskimo or Alaskan ice cream — for thousands of years. But it’s not the typical creamy treat you’d expect, instead made with animal fat (historically reindeer), tallow or seal oil, newly fallen snow or water, and either berries or pieces of meat or seafood. Meat and seafood were traditional when akutaq was served as a hunter’s meal, but sugar was introduced to akutaq recipes in the 19th century, transforming it into a hearty dessert. The fat and oil are heated to a liquid, the water or snow gets added in, and then it’s whipped by hand until the mixture is cooled and fluffy. If you fold in the berries, the unique flavor is said to taste like berries mixed into buttercream, though there are many regional variations across the state.
Chiffon Cake, California
Cake isn’t typically considered a light and cool treat, but chiffon cake is the definition of airy. It’s often paired with whipped cream, fresh berries, and ice cream — making it the perfect summer treat. An insurance agent named Harry Baker invented the recipe in Los Angeles in 1927. He kept one ingredient secret for 20 years, during which time the cake grew so popular that he was selling about 40 every day. In 1947, Baker burst his own bubble of secrecy and sold the recipe to General Mills, which turned it into a cake mix and helped the popularity of the cake soar nationwide. The secret ingredient? Vegetable oil.
Bananas Foster, New Orleans
Bananas sautéed in butter and brown sugar, flambéed in rum and banana liqueur, sprinkled with cinnamon, and served over vanilla ice cream — if bananas foster sounds like the perfect summertime dessert, it most certainly is. Combining fruit, spice, and chilliness, the dish was invented in 1951 at Brennan’s Vieux Carre in New Orleans. Richard Foster had just been named the new Crime Commission chairman for the city and Brennan’s owner, Owen Brennan, told his sister Ella to create a new dessert in Foster’s honor. She combined a childhood favorite her mother used to make (sautéed bananas) with the flames from a baked Alaska, and the irresistible dessert has been popular ever since, both in New Orleans and around the country.
Ambrosia, The South
Ambrosia is at once a salad and a dessert, typically served chilled and made with pineapple, orange slices, marshmallows, whipped cream, and coconut — though the recipe and the ingredients change based on the chef who prepares it. The first ambrosia showed up in cookbooks in the late 1880s as simple orange slices dusted with coconut and sugar, layered in a glass dish. Southern cooks took the basic recipe and made it their own, transforming it into a full-on fruit salad. These days, it’s a generational treat, with the recipe passed down from aunts and grandmothers, and ambrosia is a staple at most family gatherings in the South.
Frozen Custard, Milwaukee
Though Milwaukee is considered the unofficial frozen custard capital of the world, the dessert was actually invented on the East Coast. Brothers Archie and Elton Kohr ran an ice cream stand on Coney Island in 1919, but they struggled with the ice cream melting too quickly in the sun. So they mixed in egg yolks — an addition that made the dessert denser and even creamier, helping it stay cold longer. They brought their invention to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, where a Milwaukeean named Paul Gilles tried it, loved it, and returned home to create his own, opening Wisconsin’s first frozen custard stand in 1938. Now custard stands are iconic and prolific in the city — Milwaukee is home to more frozen custard shops per capita than anywhere else in the world.