As regular readers of this blog have probably figured out by now, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. Even as a kid, I was not into sweets—much to the delight of my dentists. Dessert at our house, such as it is, usually consists of a piece of fresh fruit or perhaps some fruit cut into chunks and dressed up with sugar and lemon juice in the typical Italian manner.
But when the temperatures begin to rise, I am fond of frozen desserts. Italian cuisine encompasses several main categories of frozen desserts: everyone knows the Italian way of making ice cream, gelato, which is by far the most well-known of the lot. But equally good are sorbetto, granita and the semifreddo. Also much appreciated is the flavored shaved ice called grattachecca, known abroad as “Italian ices”, which has roots going back to ancient Rome. We’ll examine all of these over the course of the summer.
In this post, we take a look at the perhaps the simplest of these basic categories of frozen desserts, the sorbetto. By far the most common type of sorbetto is the sorbetto di limone, which is a classic way to end of fish dinner or, during very formal multi-course meals, to provide a ‘palate cleanser’ between courses. I will blog about this very soon, but let me begin my exploration of Italian frozen desserts with the favorite sorbetto in our home, sorbetto di mango. To my mind, mango is the perfect fruit for making frozen desserts because it has a wonderful smooth texture, especially when puréed, that gives a wonderful silky texture to your sorbetto. But you can use the same recipe for any kind of fruit that lends itself to puréeing.
At its most basic, the sorbetto is essentially a variation of the good old sugar-and-lemon dressed fruit dessert. The sugar and lemon enhance the flavor, as always, but instead of pure sugar, you use of syrup that prevents the fruit from becoming rock solid when the concoction is frozen. Unlike most dishes you will find on this blog, the measurements are rather important, so let me present this recipe to you in the ‘normal’ way:
Sorbetto di mango
Ingredients: for four servings:
200g/2 cups cut up mango or other fruit
100g/1 cup simple sugar syrup (see recipe below)
Juice of ½ lemon, freshly squeezed
Preparation: Purée the mango or other fruit of your choice in a food processor or blender. When the mixture is perfectly smooth, mix in the sugar syrup and freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Now take the resulting ‘batter’ and chill it in the fridge for at least 20 minutes to get it nice and cold and allow the flavors to meld. Pour the batter in an ice cream maker, following the instructions. Most will tell you to churn the batter for about 20-30 minutes. You can tell it’s done when the batter clings to the paddle:
The resulting sorbetto can be served as is—if you like a ‘soft serve’ consistency—or placed in the freezer for an hour or two if you like a firmer consistency.
How to Make Simple Sugar Syrup
To make sugar syrup, you take equal amounts by volume of sugar and water and simmer them together until they turn into a light, clear syrup. Nothing could be easier, but, like anything else, it may help to see it before trying it yourself, so here goes.
First, pour the sugar into a saucepan:
Then add the water:
Mix until the sugar is suspended in the water, which will look cloudy:
Then turn on the heat to medium-high, stirring from time to time. As the water begins to heat up, the sugar will melt, leaving a nearly clear liquid:
Bring to syrup to a simmer and let it continue simmering for about five minutes:
Turn off the heat and let the syrup cool completely. The syrup should be perfectly clear and have an ever so slightly golden color:
It helps to chill the syrup before using but if you’re in a hurry, just make sure it’s room temperature. If you are really in a rush, you can immerse the saucepan in ice water to cool it down quickly. Since it keeps indefintiely, I usually like to make a large batch, say 1 liter/2 pints at a time, and keep what I don’t need in the fridge so I have some on hand to make sorbetto whenever the spirit moves me
NOTES: I like to serve sorbetto di mango with berries or, as shown here, with crème de cassis. The contrasting colors and flavors are, to use an over-used adjective, awesome. Some recipes call for folding in whipped egg white into the batter just before churning in the ice cream maker. This is meant to give the sorbetto a smoother texture but I prefer the eggless version. As mentioned above, any fruit that lends itself to puréeing can go into a sorbetto; cherries and other berries are particularly nice, but so are soft summer fruits such as peaches and plums. Juice-based sorbetti are prepared in a slightly different way, so I’ll save those for another post.
Sorbetto of any type will keep in the freezer more or less indefinitely. Just take it out of the freezer about 15 minutes or so before you want to serve it so it softens up a bit. The texture of a proper sorbetto can be soft or firm, but it should never be hard.
The classic sorbetto di limone, in fact, is often served slushy, almost liquid—which is true to the original. The word sorbetto comes from Turkish ‘sherbet’ (which passed directly into English) but it has a double-meaning in Italian, since the word sorbire means ‘to sip’. And that is indeed how sorbetti were originally consumed when they were imported into Italy in the 16th century from the Middle East, being essentially a frozen fruit juice mixed with a sweetener, often honey. Even today, it is not unusual to have sorbetti with sparkling wine—which is indeed a wonderful way to have them. It seems it was the French that developed the ‘eatable’ sorbet in the 19th century from fruit pulp. [Source: Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, 1999)]
Like gelato, sorbetto was first introduced in Sicily—a by-product of the Moorish invasion—and is said to have been frozen with the snows of Mount Etna. This may also account for the fact that the most common ones in Italy are made from citric fruits: lemon and, a distant second, orange. The first recorded recipe for sorbetto is found in the Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) and, interestingly, called for cherries or plums, not lemon. If you read Italian, this article gives a detailed history.
The Arabic word for sherbet, by the way, sharab, changed meaning early on and entered Italian as sciroppo and from there into French as sirop and then into English as ‘syrup’.