Granita (pronounced grah-NEE-tah) is the name for an Italian ice of rough, jagged crystals. It melts the minute it hits your tongue, sending a shiver of cold straight down the throat. The classic flavors are lemon and coffee, but granita comes in other flavors too, including one made with jasmine. The ultimate, though, has to be the almond granita made from an infusion of crushed almonds in water served with warm brioche for breakfast at Caffé Sicilia in Noto, Sicily.
In fact, the inspiration for Sicily’s slushy ice comes from the Arabs who once ruled the island. And over the centuries, granita has become a tradition over much of southern Italy. In 19th century Naples, colorful carts festooned with lemons used to dispense granita di limone at the height of summer. The mystery is why granita rarely shows up on Italian menus in Los Angeles, edged out by gelato and sorbetto made in gelato machines that do all the work.
For the home cook, the beauty of granita is that it doesn’t require a fancy ice cream or gelato machine. All you need is a shallow metal or glass baking pan and a fork. Really.
And some spectacular fruit.
Since the ice involves no dairy, it’s a purist’s dessert, highlighting sweet, juicy tangerines or fragrant lemons.
In Provence, a cook friend once looked out the window of the house we were renting and spied a cherry tree loaded with fruit. Soon we were gleefully squeezing cherries with our hands to get the crimson juice. A couple of hours later, we were spooning jaggedy ice crystals of cherry granita into our mouths in the dark.
To make granita, start with 3 or 4 cups of freshly squeezed fruit juice — cherry, lemon (cut with water), tangerine, blood orange, grape, even puréed melon or peaches. You can, of course, make it with juice you buy, but the end result won’t taste as vibrant.
Add sugar (preferably fine baker’s sugar) or simple syrup to taste, just sweeter than you’d like to drink it. (After freezing, the granita will taste much less sweet.) How big the crystals get depends on how much sugar is in the mix. Less sugar, bigger ice crystals.
Pour the mixture into a shallow baking pan. Ideally, the liquid shouldn’t be much more than an inch deep or it will take a very long time to form the ice crystals.
Place the pan in the freezer. After about an hour, check to see if ice has started to form on top and around the edges. If not, wait some more. Once you can see the ice, take that fork and scrape the ice crystals into the middle. Come back a half hour later, scrape again. Repeat several times until all the liquid is frozen.
Just before serving, fluff up the granita with the fork and serve it heaped into footed ice cream bowls or wine glasses. (If the granita is too firm, let the container stand out at room temperature for a few minutes before serving.)
Now that barbecue season is here in earnest, served after grilled chops and sausages, or carne asada with all the fixings, a tangerine granita is refreshing and light. Serve it with cookies or even a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, the way chef Jennifer Naylor used to do at Wolfgang Puck’s Malibu restaurant, Granita.