Photo: Snowdays NYC via Instagram
The first time I ate shaved snow, I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of it. Despite ordering the smallest size available, the bowl was large and the dessert within it — a Taiwanese-inspired twist on traditional ice cream — was piled high, a small mountain of billowy flakes. I had my doubts about my ability to tackle its peaks, but I grabbed my spoon, mustered a mountaineers’s adventurous attitude, and got ready to take the climb. By the time I was finished, I was hooked. That, I thought, was awesome.
Shaved snow — also known as shaved cream, snow cream, fluff ice, milk fluff, milk snow, or xue hua bing (translation: snow flower) in Taiwanese — is extremely young when it comes to the lengthy timeline of desserts. Unlike traditional ice cream, which carries with it a long, storied history rich with nostalgia, shaved snow has only been available in the United States for a few years, flourishing first on the West Coast in warm weather locales like Los Angeles, and now migrating east. Because of its youth, shaved snow carries with it an air of excitement — a mysterious newness that makes it off-putting to some and intriguing to others.
My very first shaved snow. So young. So naive.
So what exactly is it? That’s a little complicated. See, no two shaved snow “shaveries” use the exact same recipe or technique for creating the snow. Each utilizes their own secrets and ingredients of choice to customize their cream. “Since this is a new concept, there isn’t much literature out there on recipes and formulas for making it,” said Tony Quach, owner of the popular Snowdays Shaved Cream Co. in New York, which uses fresh dairy and quality, never-artificial ingredients in its creations. However, the process essentially follows the same few steps. A dairy base is infused with flavor and frozen into a block. Then, a machine is used to shave the snow cream into fine, delicate flakes.
The taste and texture of snow cream is like no other frozen dessert I’ve ever experienced (and I’ve had quite a few). Existing in middle ground between the rich creaminess of ice cream and the light, refreshing quality of shaved ice, snow cream strikes a brilliant balance. At first bite, it’s ice-cold and feathery, the way snow felt on your tongue when you skimmed it off the ground as a kid. But it dissolves quickly, unleashing the sweet, creamy flavor that is at first contained in the frozen crystals. It’s a unique and utterly addictive experience — and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
On a recent evening, I made a trip to Snowdays, located near the New York University campus on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and found it packed with young people — mostly teens and 20-somethings — who formed a line that spilled out of the door and into the street. After ordering, many stopped to take selfies, grinning with their often over-the-top creations, piled high with such fanciful toppings as Pocky sticks, brightly colored cereals, and Nilla wafers.
Photo: Snowdays NYC via Instagram
The mood in Snowdays is always jovial, as some revel with wonderment at their first bowl of shaved snow, while others enjoy the treat they’ve come to know and love, experimenting with different toppings, including ones that adhere to shaved snow’s Asian roots, from mochi to grass jelly to, a personal favorite, Chinese red bean.
“We try to curate a list of toppings that are both fun and nostalgic,” says Quach, who has seen business boom partially thanks to the outpouring of Snowdays love on Instagram and other social media channels. As for the flavors of the snow itself, Snowdays’ selections range from their signature “Yetitracks,” a curious but delightful combination of Oreo and blueberry, to Green Tea Matcha, which uses “ceremonial grade matcha from Japan, so you can really taste the quality of the green tea,” Quach says.
Snowdays also tries to appeal to a broader audience of native New Yorkers and vegans alike with flavors like New York Cheese Cake and Vegan Coconut, which offer a more comfortable introduction into the world of shaved snow for some who might be hesitant to try the quirky dessert.
Uptown at City Kitchen, a new addition to New York City’s food hall scene, Wooly’s, another popular snow shavery, is also cashing in on the trend. Owner Eugene Hu started Wooly’s as a mobile pop-up after experiencing the shaved snow on vacation in Taiwan, and grew an instant fan base, even winning a Vendy Award — the New York City food truck awards — for Best Dessert in NYC.
Photo: Wooly’s via Instagram
Expanding their operation to sell at City Kitchen, and other New York outdoor food markets, Wooly’s most beloved flavor is their award-winning Original Leche, best served, in Hu’s opinion, topped with strawberries, pocky, and sea salt leche. Other Wooly’s flavors include Strawberry Shortcake, Root Beer Float, and an ever-rotating flavor-of-the-day. Using low-fat milk, rather than heavy cream, shaved snow allows for the feeling of creamy indulgence without the “guilty pleasure” label, Hu points out.
Partially because of this, the business of shaved snow has been booming, not only in New York and Los Angeles, but all around the country, from Washington D.C. to Houston to Las Vegas. Snowdays is opening two more New York City locations this month alone, while Wooly’s is currently planning to open their own brick-and-mortar operation. When it comes to frozen treats of the moment, it seems there’s no business like snow business.
My most recent Black Sesame creation.
Since my first taste of shaved snow one rainy day last fall, I’ve never ordered the same thing twice. On my recent trip to Snowdays, I decided to try their Roasted Black Sesame snow — the last flavor on the menu I hadn’t tried — and topped it with a drizzle of peanut butter, walnuts, and red bean. Mine was pretty restrained compared to many of the concoctions around me. Piles of airy cream were topped by M&Ms and Cap’n Crunch, rainbow sprinkles and waffle cones, marshmallows and sticks of Pocky, sticking straight up out of the bowl like chocolate-covered quills.
As faces everywhere lit up as they dug in their spoons, catching the creamy flakes on their tongues, the atmosphere was bright, joyous, fun, and young — much like shaved snow itself.
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