I find it can be kind of hard to talk about cooking in the summer, when (at least in my zip code), suddenly there are green, edible things emerging everywhere after a long, wintry dry spell, and really you only need a pair of scissors and access to olive oil, salt and lemon to make a passable form of dinner happen, usually quite late in the evening when it is too dark to take pictures. It can also be hard to talk about food when one's brain is like a halfway house for jacked-up monkeys, just to cite another randomly-selected possible complicating factor.
Fortunately, in a moment of false confidence that I would be able to figure out what was meant by any number of technical terms involved in doing so, I let a friend convince me to sign up for a virtual popsicle party, and so we are once again gathered here for some food talk. Organized by Billy Green of Wit & Vinegar, the event is a week-long celebration of all the frozen things on sticks that you can possibly imagine, and many that you can't, and you will want to make sure you have room in the freezer and a good cache of sticks before you fall down the rabbit hole of what he’s assembled over the several years he has been corralling popsicles in this great chilly rodeo of his. You can just go searchy-searchy with the #popsicleweek hashtag and you'll see what I mean, but on his site he has them all sorted by type in useful ways. Ultra-swanky.
In the three-word phrase "virtual popsicle party," the only word I feel any comfort or affinity with is the middle one. Most of my leaps in life come from a quixotic mix of ‘friend’s boot to the rear’ + ‘false confidence that challenges will melt before me like popsicles on the hood of my car,’ with a healthy dash of ‘committing to do a thing before I contemplate fully what complicating conditions reality will be presenting when it's time for the rubber to meet the road.’ All these elements converged here.
It helps that the friend in this case is Alanna, of The Bojon Gourmet. She is a compelling creature, and if you have not already bought her book , I’ll just say again that you ought to correct the situation immediately. Not long ago I had the pleasure of cooking with her over the course of several days for a celebration of that book.
Cooking a clutch of recipes together deepened my understanding both of how nice it is to make a new friend even when you are least expecting to do so, and of the truth of my NOT A DUD IN THE BUNCH analysis of the recipes in her book.
There is not a dud in the bunch. I assure you: you will be so happy with the things you can make if you buy that book.
Thinking (this is like "stressing") about popsicle week, I considered offering up some amazing blackberry popsicles I once made, until I remembered that those came straight from one of Alanna’s recipes. Foraging in the wilds of my mind for an actual, bona fide original notion, my monkeybrain landed on one of the first things I made all by myself in the kitchen, at about the age of 10: a tea-scented, milky pudding, very British in origin, involving gelatin and prepared in a rabbit-shaped mold which has probably gone the way of all things by now but was certainly well-loved by me in its day. Also well-loved by me: that pudding.
Did you get to drink cambric tea when you were a knee-biter? Whatever nonsense the interwebs would have you believe, it’s made by combining milk and sugar and hot water and then breezing a wisp of plain black tea quickly through it, to help small people feel grown up and participatory at tea time and also, I suppose, to initiate them gently into the ways of the caffeine zombie lifestyle. (First teabag is free!). Ever since my first cup, I’ve loved the taste of tea and I love the taste of a milky black tea especially. This pudding was all of that in a jiggly rabbit shape, and I did it all on my own (well, me and the Mary Poppins Cookbook). I was mighty pleased with myself.
I locked “tea” and “popsicles” together in my head, with the resident monkeys, to see if something useful might emerge, and from those coordinates the little merry band of simians caromed into my early 20's, a decade or so beyond the rabbit experience, when my world of tea had expanded to wider territory than Tetley and Lipton (so brisk!).
I remember tasting rooibos tea for the first time at a shop in New York City near my first apartment —my cambric apartment, I suppose. Around this time my mother and my oldest sister, who also lived in New York, were triumphantly forswearing caffeine in that pained and virtuous way that people have when they are giving up something they adore and depend upon, for health reasons that have been described to them in stark terms by a zealot who intends to fix everything. Look, I said, here is this utterly delicious tea that tastes so much like your old friend tea but has no caffeine in it! They lapped it up. For a few days, anyway.
My sister called me later that week in a snit. THAT TEA HAS CAFFEINE ALL UP IN IT, she said, or words to that effect, suggesting that I had upset her personal wagon and knocked her under its wheels. I slunk back to the tea shop. “You said,” I sniffled to the saleslady, “You SAID this tea had no caffeine in it but my sister says she's had the (whatever it was that caffeine was doing to her) all the time since she’s been drinking it.”
“Hmm,” said the lady, whom I remember as unflappable and very well put-together, just the sort of elegant being that would be behind the gleaming counters of a fine, below-street-level tea shop with a lot of exposed brick, in SoHo, in an era before giant chains began to dominate every last little thing we consume and a little boutique was just that, unique and independent and serenely unrelated to commerce taking place in other locations. “Hmm. That IS interesting, but since rooibos comes from an entirely different plant than camellia senensis, a plant that definitely does not contain caffeine, it’s not even possible.” She leaned a little closer across the copper counter. “I’ll tell you what I think,” she said, kindly. “I think rooibos tastes so good that it makes people feel happy, and maybe that feeling is what is giving her the lift. A lot of New Yorkers find that feeling….unfamiliar.”
Rooibos figures prominently in these popsicles, in a little nod to the jiggly rabbit dessert and a bigger one to my fond thoughts about long-ago times. Here’s to a sensation of happiness, and getting familiar enough with it that we don't misdiagnose the poor thing.
Another thing that figures prominently here is a cashew cream that swirls around the fruity base of the popsicle. It comes straight from that Bojon blackberry recipe, that one she posted last Popsicle Week that made me a hero among the overheated people then in my midst. I have done nothing at all to the cream other than swap tea-scented simple syrup in for the maple syrup she called for. This cream is the bomb. It should be in allthepopsicles. It makes a pleasantly cambric counter-note to the apricots' tangy-sweetness, which freezes semi-firm once the honey gets involved. A thin little robe of bittersweet chocolate, if you are in the mood to gild the lily, holds everything together, as we all must.
creamy rooibos apricot popsicles, lily-gilding optional
makes 6-8 pops, depending on the size of your mold
For the simple syrup:
½ cup water
1 tablespoon plain, loose rooibos tea
2/3 cup mild honey
For the Popsicles:
THE CREAMY PART
¼ cup raw, unsalted cashews
1 ½ tablespoons simple syrup
¼ cup water
pinch fine sea salt
1/2 cup full-fat coconut milk
THE FRUIT PART
1 ¼ pounds fresh apricots, pitted and chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
the remaining simple syrup
THE (optional, lily-gilding) CHOCOLATE SHELL
4 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped (I used a nice 70%)
2 tablespoons coconut oil
3-4 coins of crystallized ginger, finely minced
Make the simple syrup by bringing the water to a boil and adding the tea; steep for five minutes off the heat, then add the honey and bring to a boil once again. Strain and reserve.
Make the creamy part by placing the cashews in a heatproof bowl, covering generously with boiling water, and soaking for at least 30 minutes (and up to 8 hours). Drain the soaked cashews and place in a blender (or a container that will accommodate an immersion blender) with the 3 Tablespoons of simple syrup, the water and the salt. Blend the cashews until silky smooth, 3-5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and blend again. Pour into a small jar or spouted pitcher and chill while you prepare the rest.
Make the fruit part by pitting and chopping the apricots and combining them in a saucepan with the lemon juice and simple syrup. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower the heat and continue cooking until the fruit has softened completely. Attack briefly with a potato masher to break up any larger bits and create a relatively smooth, yet still-textured mash.
Divide this mash among your popsicle molds, filling them about 2/3 of the way to the max line. Fill the remaining space with the cashew cream. Use a chopstick to swirl the two mixtures, set the sticks into them, and freeze until quite solid, at least 8 hours.
If you choose to gild the lily with chocolate, proceed like so: a half hour before you plan to unmold the pops, line a baking sheet with parchment and place in the freezer to chill.
Unmold the popsicles, and set them on the prepared baking sheet; return to freezer while you get busy with the chocolate shell.
In a small bowl set over simmering water, melt the chopped chocolate and coconut oil together, stirring until smooth; transfer to a drinking glass that can accommodate a popsicle comfortably and allow to cool completely at room temperature.
Dip popsicles one by one, letting excess coating run off, and return to the waiting baking sheet, quickly sprinkling a few tiny niblets of chopped ginger across the top side before the coating sets; return to freezer so that the chocolate sets up firmly, and wrap the treats individually if they will be stored more than an hour or two before eating.