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

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.

"For those who don't like it, we have vanilla," she says with a chuckle.

The gourmet ice pop trend is hot elsewhere in Maryland.

At Gaylord National Resort on the National Harbor waterfront inPrince George's County, frozen treats have taken center stage. Executive pastry chef Amanda Rosse, who creates desserts for the hotel's restaurants and attached convention center, has created cool pops in fun flavor combos.

Guests can slurp pops in honeydew and cucumber, lime and litchi, strawberry yogurt, and pineapple and green peppercorn.

"These are made for small upscale dinners and private events in the convention center," says Amie Gorell, a Gaylord spokeswoman.

At Art and Soul, the D.C. restaurant of celebrity chef Art Smith inside the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel, gourmet ice pops are winning fans. Recent goodies include a layered black raspberry and red wine sorbet, and a lemon-thyme cream cheese ice cream pop.

"We make these fruit bars because they're absolutely delicious on a hot day — any day for that matter," says executive chef Wes Morton. "We switch the flavors out every so often and don't even have the bars on the menu, so they're more of a surprise" for diners, Morton adds. "They're a great treat to have on your way to the office after lunch."

If you want to try your hand at making homemade ice pops, there's no shortage of recipes in cookbooks, magazines and online. Celebrity cooks including Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse have weighed in with their versions of the teeth-chattering goodies.

Williams-Sonoma, Target and Tovolo offer all kinds of ice molds, including animal shapes and rocketlike cylinders, but a paper or plastic cup will do the job, say pros.

If you're not up to the task of whipping up a batch, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and other local chains carry organic and other brands of fruity ice pops.

Finally, Manhattan Fruitier, which has a partnered with People's Pops, ships and delivers frozen bars nationwide.

The flavor choices run the gamut: strawberry rhubarb, to plum sour cherry, blueberry apricot and raspberry basil.

Can you say refreshing?

Red bean ice pops

Makes: 6 pops

1 1/2 cups canned sweetened, mashed adzuki beans (can be found at many Asian markets)

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon fine salt

Place 1 cup of the beans and the cream in a large bowl and mix until evenly combined. Place the remaining 1/2 cup of beans, milk, sugar, and salt in a blender and process until smooth. Pour into the bowl with the bean-cream mixture and stir to combine. (The beans will sink to the bottom.) Fill the pop molds halfway with the liquid part of the mixture. Use a spoon to evenly divide the beans left on the bottom of the bowl among the molds. Freeze until solid, at least six hours.

Source: Chow.com

Fruit salad ice pops

Makes: 8 pops

1 peach, cut into 1/2-inch slices (1/2 cup)

2 kiwis, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds

1/2 cup blueberries

3/4 cup strawberries, hulled and halved

1 1/2-2 cups 100 percent white-grape juice

Arrange some of each fruit in eight 3-ounce ice-pop molds, making sure pieces fit very snugly. Pour enough juice into each mold to just cover fruit. Insert ice-pop sticks and freeze until solid.

Source: Martha Stewart/Everyday Food

Emeril Lagasse's margarita ice pops

Makes: 4 pops

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons tequila

2 tablespoons orange liqueur (recommended: Grand Marnier)

Kosher salt, for garnish

4 small cups (i.e., Dixie cups)

4 sticks

Combine sugar, lime juice, water, lemon juice and orange juice in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once cool transfer to a blender with tequila, orange liqueur, and lime wedge and process until smooth. Pour into the cups and cover the top of each cup with foil. Place the popsicle stick in center of cup (down through foil, which will hold it in place). Freeze until hard, preferably overnight. Remove from freezer and run cup under warm water to loosen ice pop. Garnish with kosher salt and serve.

Source: Food Network.com