Humans have had a sweet tooth throughout time, dating back to when hunter-gatherers gravitated toward berries mixed with animal fats and snow. Times have changed, but that craving for something cold and sweet has not. Shaved ice – tiny, creamy flakes of ice fresh from the block and drenched with flavored syrup -- is about the closest anyone not living in a snowy paradise can get to the grandmother of all desserts.
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A Light, Fine Texture
Called shave ice in Hawaii, shaved ice consists of tiny flakes of ice served with flavorings and sometimes toppings. While shaved ice is similar to an American snow cone, the texture is much lighter and finer. The smaller flakes absorb the syrups and flavorings rather then letting them run off and pool in the bottom of the cup, bowl or cone the way coarser ice tends to do. Shaved ice is usually flavored with fruit-based syrups, though commercially prepared shaved ice syrups are often made with high fructose corn syrup and may contain artificial colorings and flavorings.
Let It Snow
The quickest and most efficient way to make the delicate flakes that give shaved ice its creamy texture is by using a shaved ice machine. These range from as little at $15 in 2014 for the simplest hand-cranked models to hundreds of dollars for a gourmet home shaver, and thousands of dollars for a commercial one. A shaved ice machine produces the tiny flakes required for true shaved ice, but if you don't have one there are other options. Some automatic icemakers come with a shaved ice function, though most pulverize the ice into much larger pieces than shaved ice calls for. A food processor or blender can also make finely crushed ice. The simplest low-tech method is to freeze water in a clean cardboard milk carton, peel away the carton and shave the block of ice with a cheese grater.
The second main ingredient in classic shaved ice is the syrup. Commercial syrups are available in the ice cream topping section of most supermarkets, as well as online. Making your own syrup is not difficult, and using fresh ingredients helps ensure the quality of the results. The healthiest way is to simmer cut-up fresh fruit such as berries, pineapple or mango in just enough water to cover them. You can add sugar before you simmer the fruit or sweeten it with honey, agave nectar or a plant-based artificial sweetener. Let the syrup reduce until it thickens slightly, strain it and place it in a squeeze bottle in the refrigerator for a quick and chilly treat. Or use pure maple syrup, coffee syrup and liqueurs to turn this child-friendly treat into a decadent adult dessert.
Serving in Style
Shaved ice can be served in anything from a paper cup to a crystal goblet. You can also present the dessert in a tumbler, a tall iced-tea glass, a waffle bowl, an ice cream cone or a chocolate-dipped waffle cone. True shaved ice can be eaten with a spoon, but if you are using crushed ice it's a good idea to include a straw to slurp up the pooled syrup.
Top It Off
Traditional shaved ice toppings vary widely from region to region, and can include such exotic fare as adzuki beans or bean paste, crushed exotic fruits such as lychee or a powder made from dried, salted plums. Many traditional shaved ice parlors offer a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk on top, upping the creaminess factor. A blend of flaked coconut and chopped fruit makes for a simple and refreshing dessert, while chocolate chips, nuts or crushed candies add sophisticated flair.