Ah, Beijing in high summer. When the heat and humidity congeals around you in a polyester second skin of sweat and muck, something sweet and very, very cold is exactly the respite you’re looking for. Yet, your local xiaomaibu doesn’t offer up the best selection. Corn-flavored ice cream, anyone? The quality of frozen desserts in this country range from strange, gritty, and artificial at best to melamine-laden at worst. But despair not! Every challenge is an opportunity, and crowd-pleasing frozen desserts can be as easy or as artisanal as you want them to be.
On the far end of the easy scale, nothing is simpler than slushies. While there is certainly a place in my heart for anything neon from 7-11, slushies don’t always have to glow in the dark. All you need to make them is a freezer and a blender. Pick fruits that are high in water content: melons and berries are great. Cut up and remove the seeds of large fruits (seedless watermelon certainly has its appeal here), and store them in the freezer until frozen solid. Fruit keeps well for weeks in the freezer, so it’s always great to have several types (watermelon, strawberry, kiwi, peach) frozen at any one time. Herbs like mint and basil also freeze and flavor these dessert drinks really well. Another great thing to keep on hand is flavored honey, which is perfect for drizzling over summer desserts. Simply warm honey in a pan with chopped lemon grass, lime peel, or a split vanilla bean. Let it cool, then store it in a cool, air-tight jar. Strain out the any of the floating bits before you use it.
Whenever there’s a languid whine over rising temperatures, whip out a blender, fill it a quarter of the way with soda water, mix and match your frozen fruit, herbs, and honeys, then just whirl it up! There you have it: instant fresh slushie.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, homemade ice cream is actually easier than you think. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, the coffee can method is a great way to entertain younger kids. All you need is two coffee cans, or two concentric metal cans with lids. Wash the cans well and dry them. Stick them in the freezer until you’re ready to use them. If you have no qualms with the delicious extra fat, you can substitute the milk in this recipe with cream or half and half.
3 tbsp cornstarch
4 cups milk
¾ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
2 cups toasted ground black sesame (easily found at any Chinese supermarket)
1 cup fresh lychees, shelled, pitted and chopped
Lots of ice (if using the coffee can method)
Dissolve the cornstarch in one cup of milk, set aside. In a pan, add three cups of milk with the sugar, salt and ground sesame. Heat the mixture over the stove until it starts to steam. Add the milk and cornstarchmixture in a steady stream into the hot milk mixture and whisk until smooth. The cornstarch may have settled to the bottom of the mixture, so give it a good stir before adding it to the hot milk. Bring this mixture to a simmer, whisking the entire time. Turn off the heat. Let it cool and then refrigerate overnight. Strain the mixture and discard the solids. Add mixture to your ice cream maker. If using the coffeecan mixture, pour the mixture into a small can, replace the lid, and tape it closed with duct tape. Add a layer of ice to the bottom of the larger can, then add a tablespoon of salt. Put the smaller can into a bigger can and pack ice and more salt around the smaller can. Replace the lid of the large can and tape it up with duct tape. roll the can around for 15 minutes. Unpack the smaller can and add the chopped lychees, scraping down the sides of the can and mixing the lychees well into the ice cream. Repack the cans with fresh ice and roll for another 15 minutes. Unpack the smaller can, scrape down the sides and freeze the mixture in the freezer until set (two to three hours).