Pick a liquid — coffee, champagne, even carrot juice — add sugar and other desired flavorings, and stick in the freezer. Stir every now and again, and you have granita, a refreshing dessert perfect for summer.
During my childhood, one of my father's summer specialties was pineapple-buttermilk sherbet. Put aside thoughts of a creamy, citrus dessert combining a tart tropical taste with the refreshing cool of mountain snow: This was a pan of frozen buttermilk with rock-hard chunks of pineapple embedded in it.
It resembled an 8-inch-by-8-inch popsicle more than what we Southerners think of as sherbet — similar to, but lighter than, ice cream and usually citrus flavored.
You could break a tooth on my father's sherbet. Yet it was a delicious dessert after grilled steaks and cole slaw on a hot August night.
A few summers ago, reading an article about granitas, I thought of Dad's pineapple sherbet. It should have been less like a popsicle and more like granita, with individual crystals of lightly frozen ice.
So I dug up his recipe and made it, mixing it frequently to keep the mixture from solidifying into a solid block. I was astounded at how good it was. I could eat it with a spoon instead of an ice pick, and the crystals quickly melted on my tongue, giving up the wonderfully tangy flavors without a fight.
Although I'd enjoyed granitas in Italy, I had done so almost mindlessly. To educate myself, I turned to my copy of Food Lover's Companion, and the first thing I learned was that Dad's recipe wasn't truly a granita. A granita is made with liquid such as fruit juice, wine or coffee, mixed with sugar and maybe other flavorings and then frozen. As it freezes, the mixture is agitated, by mixing with a whisk every 30 minutes or so, until you have a slush of ice crystals.
Neither was Dad's concoction a sorbet. Sorbets are like granitas in that they usually don't contain dairy products. They typically have more body, and a smoother and less granular texture than granitas.
My father's recipe really was a pineapple sherbet. Well maybe. Sherbet seems to be an American invention that is a cross between ice cream and sorbet. But fruit in Dad's mixture is crushed pineapple, not juice or puree.
Granitas can be made from any liquid and require careful but sporadic attention while freezing. The mixture is poured into a shallow baking dish and placed in the freezer. Every 20 to 40 minutes, it is stirred up with a whisk and returned to the freezer. Depending on the sugar and alcohol content of the mixture, and the size of the pan, the granita should be ready in about four hours (more sugar and more alcohol slow the process because they lower the mixture's freezing point).
Granitas are elegant desserts, best served in glass containers to show off the colors and ice crystals. They also are a perfect palate cleanser between courses in a formal meal. During a recent restaurant dinner, a small spoonful of pink grapefruit granita after the salad course served as a perfect intermezzo.
Granitas are easy to make and infinitely variable. Pick a liquid — pomegranate juice, champagne, even carrot juice — add some sugar and whatever other flavorings seem desirable, and stick it in the freezer. Come back every now and then and give it a stir, and you have granita.
Dad's concoction was clearly a strange cross-breed. Nevertheless, I've included the recipe below because whatever it is, like the other recipes, it is easy to make, light and refreshing, and perfect on a hot summer evening.