Japanese Shaved Ice: Now a Dessert For All Seasons

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Orange Cream Kakigori

(This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Kakigori, an esteemed member of the global family of shaved ice sweets, is morphing from a warm weather treat to year-round show-stopping dessert. The delicate, snowy, flakes, embellished with a wide array of syrups and toppings, adapt well to both traditional and contemporary settings.

Relished by Japanese nobility centuries ago when ice brought from the mountains was a luxury, kakigori has been popular at Japanese restaurants in the United States for decades. Recently it has caught the imagination of American chefs, and is starring on menus at fine dining establishments and in small shops operated by enthusiastic young entrepreneurs.

What distinguishes kakigori from other shaved ice concoctions is the purity of ingredients that are a hallmark of Japanese cuisine, and the deftness of the chef in shaving a block of ice in a machine with a sharp blade to achieve smooth, fluffy crystals. Seasonal syrups and condiments are added as the ice builds up, providing an infinite variety of classic and contemporary combinations.

Stephanie Prida, pastry chef, The Lobster Club, making strawberry shortcake

That is the appeal for devotees like Stephanie Prida, Pastry Chef at the Japanese bistro The Lobster Club in New York, and Chef de Cuisine Marc Johnson at David Chang’s Majordomo in Los Angeles. Prida recalls, “I was traveling in Japan, and had kakigori in a small shop in Tokyo…I became obsessed with it and determined to try every flavor on the menu.” When she was developing the pastry menu for The Lobster Club, Prida explains, “I knew from day one that I wanted to do kakigori, but the owners didn’t really know what it was. So I ordered a cheap hand-crank machine from Amazon and did a couple of mini-versions.” They were convinced, and the restaurant now sends out awesome towers of blood orange or tiramisu kakigori, made in a gigantic Swan machine. “It took us a while to figure out the right water we wanted,” she notes, “the exact temper of the ice block, the right syrups to use, and the consistency of the toppings.” Now that kakigori has become a signature dessert, pumpkin and chestnut are on Prida’s wish list.

Strawberry kakigori
Strawberry kakigori – Bonsai Kakigori

Marc Johnson discovered shaved ice locally at Taiwanese and Korean shops, and after purchasing an ice-making machine, set out experimenting with textures to achieve the perfect flakes. Working with ice supplier Penny Pound, he found that leaving the blocks out of the freezer for a few minutes before they went into the machine, kept the ice from cracking. For Majordomo’s opening menu he created orange cream kakigori, with a citrus salad on the bottom, elderflower vinaigrette, citrus syrup, orange cream, and vanilla meringue. Johnson’s current offering is coconut avocado cream, coffee syrup, and candied cacao nibs.

Like Prida, a visit to Japan was the impetus for two kakigori start-ups on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After Gaston Becherano raved to his partner Theo Friedman about watching a kakigori master in Tokyo, the duo opened Bonsai kakigori at a stand in the Canal Street Market. Their ice blocks are made in the basement, shaved in a hand-cranked machine, and offered in flavors like roasted black sesame, drizzled with a choice of sauce (blueberry puree, salted caramel), and sprinkled with a selection of toppings ranging from marshmallows to more traditional red bean and mochi.

The Little One. Photo credit: Alan Li

Nearby, on bustling East Broadway, husband and wife pastry chefs Olivia Leong and Eddie Zheng, impressed by the Japanese desserts they sampled on an Asian visit, opened The Little One last January. Both graduates of the Institute of Culinary Education who began their careers at Dominque Ansel and WD 50, their artistic, well-balanced presentations include roasted green tea hojicha, and currently, cookies and cream and kabocha squash. While many shaved ice operations like Ruby’s Sno-Balls in Dallas close for the winter, places like The Little One offer a selection of fine teas, hot chocolate, and other Japanese desserts along with kakigori, to please their customer base year-round.