As the summer draws to a close, it’s time to finish our trilogy of Italian frozen desserts. We have already explored the delights of gelato and sorbetto, and now it’s time to finish our trilogy with a post on granita, a kind of country cousin to the first two. Most commonly made with coffee or lemon juice, granita is a kind of rustic sorbetto, easy to make at home—no ice cream maker is needed—and has a coarser, more crystalline texture.
- 6 shots of strong espresso
- Simple syrup, to taste
First, find yourself a flat-bottomed container that can go into the freezer. Most traditional recipes call for using an ice cube tray—but that was back in the days when ice cube trays were all made of stainless steel with removable dividers. Nowadays, a metal loaf pan will do the trick.
Now make some very strong espresso coffee. If you are using an espresso machine, you can simply brew your coffee directly into the loaf pan, like so:
Make a few shots, at least one per person. Then mix in simple sugar syrup (see my post on sorbetto for step-by-step instructions) to taste—I usually just add a bit at a time, tasting until I reach the desired degree of sweetness. Personally, I like my granita (as I like my coffee) semi-sweet, but you will need at least some sugar syrup, not just for taste but also because it produces a smoother, softer texture than plain coffee, which would simply turn to dark colored ice if frozen by itself. Let the coffee and syrup mixture cool completely, then place it in the freezer.
After about 30-45 minutes, check on the granita. Depending on how much you are making, there may be little or no change the first time you check, but if you see bits of frozen crust forming, stir the mixture with a wooden spoon or spatula. Check in about 30 minutes later, by which time it is likely that things will have developed. Time to stir again:
Continue stirring the mixture every 30 minutes or so, until the granita has formed a kind of ‘slush’. You want the mixture to be fairly soft but not liquid. It will have a granular texture—that is not a defect but, as mentioned above, a desired characteristic that sets granita apart from sorbetto. Total freezing time will depend on how much you are making and the size of the container; the deeper the liquid, the longer it will take for it to freeze. Count on about 1-1/2 to 2 hours if you are making more than one or two servings.
Serve as is or—if you are feeling indulgent—with a nice dollop of whipped cream as pictured above. Granita can be served as a dessert, but I particularly like it as a sweet ‘snack’ in the afternoon. The Sicilians—who are renowned for their granite—even have it for breakfast!
Granita di limone, or lemon granita, is made exactly the same way, substituting freshly squeezed lemon juice for the espresso coffee. Although, in Rome at least, coffee and lemon are the most commonly found types of granita, there are other kinds. In Catania, for example, the favorite granita is made from almonds. Granita can also be made from fruit juice, typically orange, or puréed fruit such as strawberry or melon.
Obviously, the success of your granita di caffè will depend on the quality of your coffee. A nice strong, freshly ground espresso coffee will make it a real treat. I am a particular fan of Pete’s Coffee, a brand out of the Bay Area, but, of course, the imported Italian espresso coffees, in particular Caffè Illy, are particularly suited. Just make sure that you use the darker, “southern style” roast. And brew your espresso very strong—ristretto as they say in Italian—remembering that you will dilute the coffee a bit when you add your sugar syrup. A good granita di caffè should have an intense coffee flavor. If you don’t have an espresso maker, no worries: you can, of course, use a simple ‘moka’ coffee pot.
While gelato, sorbetto and granita are by far the most common Italian frozen desserts, they are not the only ones. In Rome it is a common sight in summer to find stands selling grattachecca, shaved iced topped with different flavored syrups. And then there are the fancy desserts like the various semifreddi, frozen moulds that make for a wonderful ending to an elegant dinner. (We’ll get to those in good time but, in the meanwhile, you won’t want for good eating with these three in your repertoire.)
By the way, if you are ever in Rome, you can have yourself some wonderful granita di caffè in a pleasant al fresco setting at the Café du Parc, at the end of via Marmorata, in the piazza Porta San Paolo, opposite the Piramide Cestia. Across the via Marmorata you will find the neighborhood of Testaccio, with one of the best food markets in Rome in its main square, not to mention some of the most authentic traditional Roman trattorie in town. In the center of town, the Tazza d’Oro, right by the Pantheon, also serves an excellent granita alongside their wonderful espresso and cappuccino.