Ice pops

Employee Mike Chung shows an array of house-made ice pops at Bon Appetit in Ellicott City. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / June 28, 2012)

Craving a summer treat that's icy, sweet, and a bit exotic? Then make gourmet ice pops your go-to cooler for the sunny season.

Ice pops aren't exactly new — remember the juice and Kool-Aid bars Mom would freeze in tiny paper cups? — but these cold confections on a stick are getting a zippy culinary makeover.

Artificial grape and cherry flavors were once the standard-bearers. Today's ice pop varieties are bursting with fresh fruit, veggies, herbs, spices, and even spirits that evoke happy hour.

Cucumber, lime and basil. Watermelon kissed by mint or lavender. Chocolate laced with hot chilies. Papaya and passionfruit. Creamy pops made of silky coconut milk and vanilla beans, or margarita blends and tequila.

The possible combinations, say chefs, are as endless as the bounty at your local farmers' market, fridge or pantry, not to mention one's imagination.

"Ice pops are just as magical as ever and easy to create in your own kitchen," writes pastry chef Shelly Kaldunski in her book, "Ice Pops: Recipes for Fresh & Flavorful Frozen Treats."

"In their purest form, all you need to make the treats are a pitcher of fresh fruit juice, a mold, a freezer and a few hours."

Gourmet ice pops are turning up in eateries and food carts from New York to Los Angeles to the Baltimore area.

The trend has been fueled in part by the locavore movement, as well as the explosion of food trucks and street fare across the country. And the increased melding of ethnic food cultures often means that ingredients are influenced by the global palate.

For instance,Mexico'sfamed frozen fruit bars — known as paletas — have an array of flavors, from mango to avocado.

The foodie site Chow.com is credited with creating an ice pop inspired by the national Filipino dessert halo-halo (the word means "mix-mix"), whose ingredients typically include evaporated milk, assorted fruits and ube, a purple yam.

These days, food connoisseurs can find ice pops of pureed litchi, the pinkish fruit of a tree found in China that's rich in vitamin C. Or tamarind, a sweet-meets-tangy tropical fruit popular in Latin and Indian cuisine (its raisinlike taste gives Worcestershire sauce its kick).

Even nuts and legumes are part of the flavor parade.

Ice pops made with horchata, a drink ubiquitous in Spain and Latin America that varies by region but can have ground almonds, cinnamon, among other ingredients, give this favorite a new twist.

And at Bon Appetit Bakery in Ellicott City, a cafe specializing in Korean desserts and delicacies, the star of one of its ice pops is the adzuki (also spelled azuki), a dark red bean that's prominent in many Asian and some African dishes.

In addition to its dessert display, the establishment has a freezer case lined with rows of ice bars, in flavors ranging from red bean and mango to strawberry and coffee.

"Everything is homemade," says Jina Han, who co-owns the business with her husband, chef Houn "Peter" Han. "The red bean [pop] is a recipe from Korea. We get the beans from the Asian market."

The red bean ice pop has mashed beans, heavy cream, eggs, milk powder and a few proprietary ingredients in the recipe.

Jina Han acknowledges that while her grown-up Korean customers delight in the red bean sweets of their youth, for children and the uninitiated, the textured ice pop is something of an acquired taste.