Coquito, the Puerto Rican holiday drink, available in frozen form
By Korsha Wilson
“They don’t know how good they have it,” Christine Berrios said of her two children as she walked her son Noah into the small prep kitchen at Torico, her family’s ice cream shop in downtown Jersey City, New Jersey.
Noah, 5, had been making pancakes with his grandmother, Pura Berrios, upstairs and came down to the first floor to ask his mother for chocolate chips. She gave him a small plastic measuring cup, half full with milk chocolate pieces, and sent him back upstairs.
“Most of the time he comes down looking for ice cream,” Christine Berrios said as she watched him bounce up the stairs.
This is a typical Saturday at Torico Ice Cream. It’s a business, but it also feels like a home, with photos in practically every corner documenting the family’s more than 50 years at the location. In fact, Pura Berrios and her family have lived upstairs off and on since 1970, when she and her husband Peter bought the building.
In 1968, Peter and Pura Berrios had been operating a small deli for a few years on the same block as a Woolworth’s department store, when Pura got pregnant with their first child, Denise. Pura Berrios began to miss the flavors of her native Puerto Rico, specifically coquito, a holiday-season drink made with coconut, warming spices like clove and allspice, and often a splash (or two) of Puerto Rican rum.
Peter Berrios, who also grew up in Puerto Rico, concocted for her a sort of coquito sherbet (without the alcohol), cracking fresh coconuts and grinding the meat before placing the mixture in a small hand-cranked ice cream maker. The result was smooth and creamy with a flavor reminiscent of the coquito she craved.
“I started giving people tastes and they would ask to buy it, so we started selling it,” Pura Berrios said.
Lines started forming along Erie Street for scoops at 5, 10 or 15 cents for a small, medium or large. Peter Berrios came up with a few more flavors, and eventually the couple converted their deli into an ice cream shop. They called it Tropical Delight before eventually shortening it to Torico, a play on “todo rico” or “everything is delicious.”
“Once we started selling ice cream, there was no going back,” Pura Berrios said.
Fifty-three years later, Torico is selling about 15,000 gallons of ice cream a year at the same compact, handsome storefront just blocks away from the Hudson River, with flavors inspired by tropical fruits like mango and tamarind, and beloved classics like pound cake and banana-peanut butter.
Next year, Torico will open a second location in the Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood of Jersey City, with a larger production facility to help them expand the business to include shipping and selling to more retail and restaurant clients. “We’ve survived because we’ve always invested when we’re ready,” Pura Berrios said.
Steven Edward Berrios, Pura Berrios’ grandson and Christine’s nephew, who now works as production manager for the company after serving in the Marines, agreed. “The new space is about growing the business and the team,” he said. “To be able to sell more and grow bigger without losing the little details.”
But the family is still committed to the original inspiration of love and care. Each December, Torico’s featured flavor is Pete’s holiday coquito, a nod to the flavor Peter Berrios made for his wife in 1968. (While the Berrioses prefer to keep the recipe within the family, Krysten Chambrot, an editor for New York Times Cooking, developed a version inspired by the one sold at Torico.) After all these years, the current version still features the same creamy texture, round coconut flavor and warming spices as the original.
This will be the first year the patriarch of Torico and the flavor’s namesake isn’t there to taste it. Peter Berrios died in June, but the family still hung his stocking behind the counter as they do every year, a testament to his presence which still infuses the business. “We have so many memories,” Pura Berrios said as she looked around the shop. “Even though he’s not here, he’s in everything.”
Coquito ice cream
By Krysten Chambrot
Yield: 4 cups
Total time: 45 minutes, plus overnight chilling
1 (15-ounce) can cream of coconut, preferably Coco López
1 (15-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 teaspoons rum extract, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
1. Prepare your ice cream machine, freezing the insert bowl if needed.
2. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the cream of coconut, coconut milk, heavy cream, rum extract, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cream of coconut melts down and all the ingredients are incorporated, making sure it does not come to a boil, about 5 minutes.
3. As the coconut mixture cooks, place the egg yolks in a small bowl, add 1/4 cup of the coconut mixture to the yolks and whisk quickly and vigorously. (This will temper, or bring up the temperature, of the eggs, so they don’t set.) Pour the yolk mixture into the saucepan with the remaining coconut mixture, and immediately start whisking over medium heat. Continue whisking until thickens and tastes intense, about 2 minutes. If you dip a spoon in the custard, it should coat the back. Run your finger through that coating; the stripe should hold for 3 seconds. Stir in more rum extract if you’d like.
4. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a food storage container or a bowl with a lid that can hold at least 1 quart. Strain the ice cream base into the container, to catch any pieces of egg that may have solidified, cover and refrigerate overnight.
5. Set up your ice cream maker, add the ice cream base to its bowl and churn according to manufacturers’ instructions. It should increase in volume and look thick and creamy, the consistency of soft ice cream. Serve the ice cream right out of the machine, or for a better, more traditional texture (think store-bought ice cream), transfer the churned ice cream to a food storage container and freeze for 4 to 5 more hours.