Granitas - Desserts For a Hot Summer's Day
Granitas - Desserts For a Hot Summer's Day

Just as sure as summer's heat comes around every year, so does my desire to cool off with an ice-cold dessert. And I don't mean just ice cream.

Don't get me wrong. I love ice cream. But often the only thing that works, especially when I've been cooking all day in a hot kitchen, is something really, truly icy.

In other words, it's granita time once again.

This traditional Italian dessert's name perfectly describes what you get: a bowlful of grainy, slushy refreshment. The grains are, in fact, tiny ice crystals, which result from the way a granita is made.

The process begins with a syrupy-sweet liquid flavored any way you like -- with fruit juice, almond milk or other nut milk, coconut cream, coffee or tea, or even sweet spices. It's important to taste the mixture and make sure it's somewhat sweeter than the final flavor you want, because the ice-cold temperatures mute sweetness.

One of my favorite things about making granita is how easy it is. There's no need for an ice cream or sorbet freezer machine, both of which would yield consistencies that are too fine and smooth. All you require is a shallow baking pan large enough so that the liquid can spread out to a depth of only about 1/4 inch. It should be made of metal, which efficiently conducts the freezer's chilling temperatures; and preferably stainless steel, which won't react with acidic ingredients.

The only other kitchen tool you need for the freezing process is an ordinary table fork. Every 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how cold your freezer is and the consistency of the mixture, use the fork to scrape up the ice crystals that have formed. After a few hours, the granita will be fully frozen, with a unique snow-like consistency that cools and refreshes like no other summer dessert.

As I mentioned, the range of possible flavors is wide. Summertime provides us with a delightful array of juicy fruits perfect for granitas, including various citruses, berries, and melons. Nuts, which yield rich-tasting "milks" when ground and steeped in water, also work well, and the now-widespread availability of almond milk in cartons makes that a great starting point. And don't forget sweetened coffee and all kinds of teas. To give you an idea of the possibilities, I'm including two great recipes here: one based on melon juice, and the other made with mint tea.

Serve them together or on their own. And feel free to garnish with fresh summer berries -- and maybe even a spirited splash of sparkling wine or grappa, if you'd like to feel not only refreshed but also a little more relaxed at the end of a hot summer day.

Honeydew Granita

Makes about 1-1/2 quarts

4-1/2 cups honeydew melon juice or watermelon juice (bought already squeezed, or made by pureeing fresh fruit and then straining it)

1/4 cup sugar, plus more as needed

Fresh lemon juice, to taste

1/4 cup Midori liqueur

Put the melon juice in a mixing bowl. Stir in the 1/4 cup sugar until dissolved. Taste and, if necessary, stir in a little extra sugar to get a good, sweet flavor; then, stir in a little lemon juice to taste. Stir in the Midori liqueur.

Pour the mixture into 1 or 2 metal baking pans, as needed, to achieve a depth of 1/4 inch. Place in the freezer.

After 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on your freezer and the consistency of the mixture, check to see if a layer of ice has formed on the surface. When it does, scrape with the tines of a table fork to break up the ice and distribute it evenly in the mixture. Return the pans to the freezer. Continue this process at the same regular interval until the granita is completely frozen into small crystals about the size of sequins.

Before serving, rescrape the granita mixture to loosen up the crystals. With an ice cream scoop or large spoon, scoop into child serving glasses or dishes.

Mint Tea Granita

Makes about 1-1/2 quarts

2 cups sugar

1 cup water

3 cups strong brewed mint tea

2 sprigs fresh mint, plus more for garnish (2-3 by taste)

Fresh lemon juice

In a saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer just until the sugar has dissolved completely, stopping before the syrup changes color. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Put the brewed mint tea in a nonreactive bowl or pitcher. Add the fresh mint sprigs, crushing them lightly in your hand, and leave them to steep in the tea for 30 minutes.

Remove and discard the mint sprigs. Stir in the cooled sugar syrup, which will make a mixture that tastes very sweet. Stir in a little lemon juice to taste, just until you can taste the mint tea flavor and the mixture doesn't taste quite as sweet.

Pour the mixture into 1 or 2 metal baking pans, as needed, to achieve a depth of 1/4 inch. Place in the freezer.

After 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on your freezer and the consistency of the mixture, check to see if a layer of ice has formed on the surface. When it does, scrape with the tines of a table fork to break up the ice and distribute it evenly in the mixture. Return the pans to the freezer. Continue this process at the same regular interval until the granita is completely frozen into small crystals about the size of sequins.

Before serving, rescrape the granita mixture to loosen up the crystals. With an ice cream scoop or large spoon, scoop into child serving glasses or dishes. Garnish with fresh mint sprigs.

 

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