If you have never been to Sicily, you have never had granita. Granita is Italian ice, but it is nothing like the Italian ice you find here in America. They are completely different, from the taste to the consistency. Some of my fondest memories of my visits to Sicily are of sitting in the café in the morning and having a Granita di Limone and brioche for breakfast. That?s right I said for breakfast. In the summer in Sicily, granita and gelato are breakfast foods. That’s what I call paradise!
This summer I decided to take on the daunting task of trying to approximate Sicilian granita starting with my favorite flavor, lemon. When I say approximate I do mean just that, I wasn’t going to kid myself into thinking that I could get it exactly the way it is in Sicily. The only way you can get true Sicilian granita is by going to the island itself. There are just too many variables involved, starting with the lemons. You can pick a lemon off a tree in Sicily and eat it like an apple. They are much sweeter than any lemons you can get here.
My first thoughts went to trying to achieve the right consistency. You could never serve true granita in the paper cups for people to eat like an ice cream cone that Italian pastry shops in the states serve ices in. Granita is way too wet; it must be served in glass and eaten with a spoon.
I decided that I was going to try two methods. My Mother told me that my Aunt in Sicily makes her own granita, by freezing it and then using a hand blender to crush it up. I was going to try this method, in addition to my own idea, which is using my ice cream machine.
I thought that trying to get the flavor down was going to be harder. I had several formulas I was going to try. First, I went with the most basic method: water, sugar, and lemon juice. Later I would try adding grated lemon zest to the mixture to see if it helped. Finally, I was going to try spooning out all of the pulp from the lemons and puréeing that for the mixture. All along I would be adjusting the sugar until I got as close to the real thing as possible.
I placed 4 cups of water and 1-1/2 cups of sugar in a pot over low heat and stirred until the sugar dissolved. Then I added ¾ cup of fresh squeezed lemon juice and stirred well. Normally, if I am making ice cream I make the custard and chill it in the refrigerator for a few hours before trying to freeze it in the ice cream machine. But, since I did?t want the granita to freeze too much I figured it was ok to just let it get to room temperature. That was my first mistake.
I was ready to freeze, so I got the machine going and start pouring in the mixture. I poured it all in and my first thought was I filled it too high. That was my second mistake. ?No way is this going to freeze,? I thought. Well, I was right. So I had to go into salvage mode. I transferred the mixture to a container, covered it and placed it in the freezer. I figured in the morning I could try my Aunt?s method with the hand blender. Then I could have granita for breakfast, just like in Sicily.
Undaunted, I wasn?t ready to give up on the ice cream machine method just yet. I still had lemons, so I halved the recipe. Actually I halved the sugar and water, but I only cut down the lemon juice by ¼ cup. Then I put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight and I would continue the next day.
In the morning I took the granita out of the freezer and broke out the hand blender. This was a little harder than I thought it would be, but once I got some of it broken up it got easier. I mixed it up until it was nice and slushy and scooped it out. It wasn?t bad for my first try. The consistency was close to what I am trying to achieve(although it was closer to the Italian Ices you get here in the New York area than true Sicilian granita), but it was a little too sweet.
When I tried the ice cream machine method that night I got much better results. I could tell right away that it was going to work. I was pretty happy with the morning?s results with the hand blender, but this was close to perfect. Little chunks of soft ice sitting with just a little bit of liquid in the bottom of the cup. This one was a little more lemony than the first, which I like better also.
I didn?t finish all of the granita, so I transferred it to a container, covered and placed it in the freezer. The next morning when I took it out to have my Sicilian style breakfast, I discovered the flaw in the ice cream machine method. The granita was a block of solid ice and impossible to scoop or scrape out. The one made with the hand blender, on the other hand, retains its consistency better when sitting in the freezer and is always relatively easy to serve.
So, which method do I recommend? I say there is room for both. If you are making the granita for dessert after a dinner party and will most likely be serving all of it immediately, use the ice ceam machine. If you are making a big batch to keep handy in the freezer for refreshing snack on hot days or a breakfast alla Sicilia, use the hand blender.
I continued to experiment with the formula, adding the lemon zest, the pulp, adjusting the sugar, etc. To my surprise I found that the best combination was the second one I tried. So there you have my valiant attempt to duplicate something that is essentially impossible to duplicate. That doesn’t mean that it is not worth making, because it is still a delicious and refreshing snack.