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Granita — ice and easy

Granita is refreshingly simple to prepare. Just mix your flavorings (sweet or savory), freeze and stir for a cool dessert or snack.

By Noelle Carter

Los Angeles Times

September 1, 2011

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There is something to be said about undertaking a complicated recipe. The thrill of a new challenge, flying solo with nothing more than your blind faith in the written word and the lure of a pretty picture. Then the labor, the cost, the sweat-inducing stress. Finally, at the end of it all, wondering if the whole experience was more of a religious encounter, or an exercise in masochism.

Rewarding? Perhaps. Personally, I like to keep it simple in the kitchen.

My latest obsession is granita: Place a flavored liquid in a shallow dish and freeze, whisking or scraping with a fork every half-hour or so until frozen. Voilà.

No special equipment. No hard labor. And the payoff is amazing.

A lightly sweetened liquid — wine, juice, even coffee — is frozen, agitated periodically to keep it from freezing solid, then shaved into ice crystals or grains (hence the name) before serving. It's perfect as a palate cleanser between courses, served at the end of the meal as a light dessert or dished up as a quick sweet — or savory — snack.

Simple as it is, the flavor variations are endless. Take a basic note, complement it with an herbal element or spice, then sweeten. Recently, I've taken my inspiration from the summer produce at the market.

Take those temptingly sweet cherries at the market. Purée a pound of them, folding in a little orange and cherry liqueur. Add a touch of almond extract — the tart, nutty extract works so well to bring out the flavors in the stone fruit. Sweeten to taste, then freeze. In mere hours you have a refreshing summer snack, fresh and light, the bold flavors of cherry complemented with a hint of bright orange. Ultimate coolness, in a dish.

Or purée a pound or so of mangoes (I use the ones sold as "Champagne") with a touch of fresh lime and grated ginger. Sweeten with sugar and thin the purée with a little water. Strain the base and freeze. Not too sweet, the mango flavor is rich and pure, brightened with a subtle punch of ginger and the fresh, almost floral, notes of lime.

Crystal clear flavor

That simplicity is what makes granita different from other frozen desserts. Because the ingredients are so basic — no dairy, eggs or gelatin — the flavor is clear.

I think what I love most about granita is that the actual work is so minimal. The shape of the ice crystals will vary depending on how often you stir, and how you scrape the finished granita before serving. Frequent stirring will shorten the crystals, giving you a much finer grain, like fresh-fallen snow. Stir less frequently (or forget it, as I sometimes do), and the crystals are coarser, more rustic.

That range of texture — the shape of the final crystals — affects the perception of taste. Imagine eating a smooth slushy dessert, the flavors quickly blending as the ice melts on the tongue. Then take the same dessert but imagine eating it as a coarser snow cone, the flavor coming in bursts as the ice is chewed. Same ingredients, but different results.

Experiment to find out which texture you prefer with different flavors. Not happy with one texture? Simply melt the granita and try again.

Branch out and experiment with flavor. Traditional flavorings are a sure thing, but feel free to improvise. Consider fresh herbs, a hint of spice, even soda, as a granita base.

I was playing with the idea of a rose water granita the other day, combining it with a bottle of bright and fruity Prosecco and adding puréed raspberries for a hint of color. A delicate pink when frozen, the granita was lightly floral when shaved, the fragrant rose water more an essence than a solid flavor.

Simple as it may be to make, keep in mind that a granita's flavor will develop and evolve as it freezes. I recently tried a green tea granita, sweetening first with honey, then in another batch with sugar, rounding out the flavors with lemon and fresh mint.

Though the flavors seemed perfect when warm, I found that the herbal, grassy notes of the tea increased as the granita chilled, overpowering it to the point of bitterness. No worries. I reduced the amount of tea and shortened the steeping period — and a fresh batch of granita was back in the freezer.

Find you don't like the flavor base, or want to tweak it some? You can also thaw it and adjust. Granitas are forgiving that way.

I'm a big fan of Mexican iced pops, or paletas. I recently tried a spicy cucumber granita, combining vibrant green cucumber purée with simple syrup that had been steeped with dried chiles and lime juice. I added a little salt to tone down the sweetness and give it a touch of savory.

Frozen, the granita was sweet and spicy, refreshing like a regular sorbet but wonderfully layered.

A complex harmony of flavors using little more than a baking dish and a fork. Wonderfully simple.

noelle.carter@latimes.com