The first frozen treats in Mexico were made with snow collected at the top of the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes. At first, the snow was carried down and used to refrigerate things like medicine and food, but later people realized they could pair the snow with sweet fruits to make luxurious frozen treats.
The enjoyment of frozen treats is something almost universal. They’re beloved all over the world, especially by children. The fact that they’re so widespread is quite remarkable when you consider the great variety in the different cultures and cuisines where they appear. Italians have their granitas and gelatos, Argentineans their helados, Indians their kulfi, and Japanese their mochi. And, yes, Mexicans have their paletas, which are savored throughout the country, all year round. Although paletas are the main focus of this book, I’ve also included recipes for two other types of refreshing Mexican treats: raspados, which are similar to granitas, and the beverages known as aguas frescas.
Paleterías (paleta shops), with their bright awnings and storefronts, are part of the Mexican landscape, decorating the streets with their vivid colors. And like many other fortunate children in my home country, I grew up enjoying paletas on a regular basis.
Although paletas have become popular outside of Mexico, you may not be familiar with them, so let me tell you a bit about them. The word paleta derives from palo, meaning “stick,” a reference to how they’re made and eaten. They’re essentially ice pops: delicious flavored liquids, frozen with a stick to hold as you eat them. Paletas come in countless flavors and are made from an enormous variety of fruits, nuts, and other ingredients, including spices and even flowers. They’re most commonly made in a rectangle shape. Paletas may have a smooth consistency, but they often include chunks of some sort to provide texture and trap different flavors.
In Mexico, we have two different types of paletas. The most popular type is paletas de agua, which are typically made with fresh fruit, water, sweetener (usually sugar from sugarcane), and sometimes other flavorings. Popular flavors include lime, watermelon, tamarind, mango, chile, and coconut.
The second type is paletas de leche or paletas de crema, which are made with some kind of dairy (usually whole milk or heavy cream) and flavorings or fruit. Sadly, these days most commercial paletas de leche are made with a powdered base due to the price of milk, but those that are still made with fresh milk or cream are incredibly delicious. They’re like ice cream on a stick, often studded with delicious fresh fruit, but also combined with other ingredients, such as pecans, chocolate, cajeta (goat’s milk caramel), rompope (similar to eggnog), and rice.
Although there are many flavors of paletas, the most common varieties have one main flavor. That’s probably because the majority are made with fresh fruit, which is great on its own. When other flavors and ingredients are added to fruit paletas, they’re usually there only to enhance the natural succulence of the fruit.
There are a few things that make paletas noteworthy. The first is that they are found everywhere in Mexico. They’re often sold from carts, but it’s more common to find them in paleterías. In fact, I have yet to encounter a Mexican town, no matter how small, without a paletería. These shops typically have a clear freezer you can look down into and see an amazing rainbow of perfectly lined-up paletas. I remember being really, really, really excited when I was big enough to stand on my tippy toes and peek in (although being picked up gave me a better view).
The second thing that’s exceptional about paletas is the incredible array of flavors. This is mostly because of the wide variety of fruit that abounds in Mexico, which is also one of the most exciting things about the food in Mexico. From more familiar fruits like strawberries, apricots, blackberries, melons, tangerines, and other citrus fruits to the tropical flavors of mango, guava, passion fruit, and coconut, to the exotic, like tamarind, mamey, prickly pear, and soursop, the list goes on and on. Even some of the fruits we usually think of as vegetables, like avocados, tomatoes, and chile peppers, make an appearance in paletas, as well as flowers like roses and hibiscus.
Another thing that makes paletas special is how the flavors have been adapted to the modern palate and embrace the sweet, salty, spicy, and sour flavors Mexicans love. There are paletas studded with chunks of fruit and chile peppers, others made with chamoy (a pickled plum or apricot sauce), and some are even so completely covered with ground piquín chiles that you can’t even see the color of the paleta.
Lastly, I think it is truly remarkable that most paleterías are family businesses, and that these frozen treats are usually made in an artisanal way. Many families buy their produce from markets then peel, chop, and puree the fresh goods by hand. In these family-run businesses, each person has his or her task—after all, they’re helping provide for one another.
There’s some debate about the birthplace of paletas, but the most common belief is that they originated in the town of Tocumbo, which is in the state of Michoacán. If you can imagine it, as you enter the town you’re welcomed by a humongous pink concrete statue in the shape of a paleta with what looks like a bite taken out of it, and in the space where that bite was taken is a globe that looks like a scoop of ice cream. The statue is a source of great pride for the townspeople.
Sugarcane grows well in the area surrounding Tocumbo, and for years it was a mainstay of the local economy. But growing sugarcane means a lot of hard labor for very little return, so in the early 1900s, Tocumbo remained a tiny village where it was difficult to make a living. In 1930, Rafael Malfavón opened a small paletería, distributing his frozen treats to the townspeople and neighboring villagers using donkeys that carried wooden boxes that Señor Malfavón had designed especially for this purpose.
Though Rafael Malfavón may have been first, the expansion that followed has been attributed to others. Legend has it that in the mid-1940s, three men who had been selling paletas in Tocumbo for a few years—brothers Ignacio and Luis Alcázar and their friend Agustín Andrade—headed to Mexico City to open the first paletería there. They called their shop La Michoacana, and although they were illiterate, they achieved success beyond their wildest dreams. They ended up selling franchises to everyone they knew—friends, cousins, neighbors, acquaintances. Since then, La Michoacana has become one of the largest franchises in Mexico, with more than fifteen thousand outlets, and more than a thousand in Mexico City alone! So now you know why it’s said that all the best paleteros (paleta makers) are from Tocumbo, no matter where you are in Mexico.
In a way, all of these people from Tocumbo are related to one another, and even if they spend most of the year elsewhere selling paletas, most keep a home in Tocumbo to return to for the holidays. And it should come as no surprise that Tocumbo holds a weeklong feria de paletas (paletas fair) at the end of the year. You try many new and different flavors of paletas at the fair, but it’s really more a celebration of the town and its people, who have not only kept their tradition alive, but also expanded to the point where the most common names for paleterías are La Michoacana, Tocumbo, and La Flor de Michoacan, including in the United States.
While this story seems well established, another legend has it that paletas originated in the town of Mexticacán, in the neighboring state of Jalisco. In the early 1940s, a man by the name of Genarito Jáuregui, apparently a jack-of-all-trades, somehow got hold of a German machine that compacted ice. As the story goes, his compadre Don Celso de Cañadas de Obregón told him about a paletera (paleta machine) that was abandoned in the customs office in the state of Veracruz. It is said that Señor Jáuregui partnered up with another compadre, Tilde Rios, to buy the machine.
Back then, Jáuregui was managing a corn mill and several fields, so it fell to Rios to run the paletería. The paletera could only make one hundred paletas at a time, and they used donkeys to haul water to the paletería. Their business was successful enough that soon they bought a more modern machine. After a few years, many other people from Mexticacán jumped on the bandwagon, opening paleterías throughout Mexico.
In Mexico, most towns have a plaza or main square with some sort of monument or statue of a famous historical person. In Mexticacán, this monument is dedicated to the paleta, which is the town’s main source of income. The monument is a pyramid with a plaque with a carved paleta on one side. And just like in Tocumbo, Mexticacán has a festival dedicated to the paleta: the Heladexpo, one of the biggest fairs in the trade.
So you see, paletas have a long history in Mexico, and a significant place in Mexican cuisine. As far back as I can remember, paletas were part of my life growing up in Mexico. Back home, we’re blessed with an incredible cornucopia of fruits, and all of them make their way into paletas. When I came to the United States, I was so surprised, and so sad, to discover that the familiar colorful frozen treats filled with chunks of fruit and bright, fresh flavors were not so easily found. Most markets offered only artificially flavored pops in limited flavors. Tamarind, soursop, and prickly pear ice pops were nowhere to be found!
After living with this for many years, I decided to change the situation by starting my own paletería, but I was struggling to come up with a name. One day I was in a cab with two dear friends, Ian and Buho. We were talking about how long we’d been living in New York, and I ventured that I was a real New Yorker because I’d been living in the city for ten years. The conversation moved to other topics, and at some point I asked them to help me come up with a name for my enterprise. Ian turned around and said, “Why don’t you follow the idea of La Michoacana and call it La Newyorkina?” Buho and I looked at each other and smiled—we both knew it was right. So La Newyorkina (meaning “the girl from New York”) was born.
I began making and selling my paletas at the Hester Street Fair in downtown New York on weekends, changing flavors often depending on what was in season and what I was craving. They were received with great enthusiasm. I’m glad that La Newyorkina has given me the opportunity to share these delicious treats with New Yorkers—and that I could share a few recipes with even more people in my previous cookbook, My Sweet Mexico.
When I decided to start making my own paletas and selling them, one of the first things I did was find some smaller molds so I could make mini paletas. When I was little, there was a special paletería that my mom knew about that made miniature paletas, and I was wild about them. I was always the first one to volunteer anytime we had to bring something for school, and the paletería was kind enough to pack the paletas for my classmates in a cooler with ice. I couldn’t get enough!
While testing the recipes for My Sweet Mexico, I found that the chapter on frozen treats was one of the most fun—and the one with the most volunteers eager to sample the results. As I tested the recipes, I filled my freezer with colorful paletas and sorbets again and again, and they quickly disappeared every time as friends asked for more. I’m certain your experience will be the same.
Just promise me a few things: use fresh ingredients, get creative, and, most importantly, have fun!
Paletas de Fresa / Strawberry Ice Pops
Makes 8 to 10
This is probably one of the most common paletas—maybe because the flavor is so kid- and adult-friendly. Strawberry paletas have been my brother’s favorite since he was a kid.
The best strawberries in Mexico are from Irapuato; they’re a kind of wild strawberry that sweetens the air, and people travel from all over to get big baskets of them. If you are lucky enough to have access to wild strawberries, which are smaller than those that you find at grocery stores but have intensely concentrated sweet flavor, please use them to make these paletas. They are so good and also quite delicate, so they squish easily—perfect for our purposes.
4 cups fresh strawberries, preferably wild, hulled and cut into quarters
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Combine the strawberries and sugar in a bowl. Let sit until the strawberries start releasing their natural juices, 20 to 30 minutes. Place in a saucepan with the water over medium heat. Simmer until they are slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor, add the lemon juice, and puree until smooth; alternatively, you could leave some chunks in if you like.
If using conventional molds, divide the mixture among the molds, snap on the lid, and freeze until solid, about 5 hours. If using glasses or other unconventional molds, freeze until the pops are beginning to set (1½ to 2 hours), then insert the sticks and freeze until solid, 4 to 5 hours. If using an instant ice pop maker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.