A quick history: Iced sweets such as ice cream, sherbets, granitas, snow cones, frozen drinks and the like have been around a long time, since at least 4000 B.C. Nobles along the Euphrates River built icehouses to make them. These were usually pits or caves where, during the winter, ice and snow would be taken and insulated against melting with straw or sawdust. It would stay frozen for many months, even until the following winter.
This served to take the edge off the hot Mesopotamian summers. Evidence indicates that snow, in addition to cooling wine likely was sold in the streets of Athens in the fifth century B.C. to make something akin to our snow cones today. Archaeologists have found remains of ice pits in China from the 7th century BC but there is also written evidence that Chinese used them before 1100 BC. We owe much to the Chinese!
The Arabs as early as the 13th century discovered that ice mixed with salt or salt peter set in motion what is called an exothermic reaction. This created a heat-sucking slurry with a far lower freezing point than typical water. Immersed in a bath of this exothermic brine, ice crystals easily formed in various liquid concoctions. Stirred regularly to prevent large ice crystals from forming, a scoop-able frozen foam resulted. Water ices, sherbets and granitas were born. The first European water ices and dairy based ice creams and were likely made in Italy during the early 1600s.
By the late-19th century, America was a hotbed of ice cream innovation. A Philadelphia pharmacist mixed the first ice cream soda in 1874. The ice cream sundae dates to 1881 (with several Midwestern towns claiming to be the site of its invention)—its name likely coming from “blue laws” that banned sale of soda drinks on Sundays. The first edible ice cream cups were patented in the 1880s, around the time that milkshakes—originally promoted as a health drink—became popular. The waffle cone rocketed to fame when introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and the Popsicle was patented in 1923. Both Dairy Queen and the Carvel company claim to have developed the first soft-serve ice cream in the mid-1930s, while frozen yogurt was a latecomer, introduced in the 1970s.
A GRANITA PRIMER
Anyone who has traveled in Italy especially in the summertime no doubt remembers all the terrific frozen confections that are available there. Creamy gooey gelatos, rich semifreddo’s and icy, slushy granitas!
The word “granita” comes from the Italian “grano” meaning kernel or grain. Granitas were first sold from vending carts in village squares in the early to mid-1800’s in Italy. Initially the coffee or fruit juice mixtures were partially frozen in a copper cylinder similar to a modern ice cream maker. Each mixture was then transferred to a container in the cart and it’s thought that the pebble-like texture was created by the jolting motion of the carts moving over cobblestone roads.
Whatever the source, they are easy to make and wonderfully refreshing on a hot day. Here are 3 of my favorites. Traditionally, granitas are made by repeatedly stirring and scraping the mixture as it freezes and hardens. It’s easy to do but does require some attention. I find that using the food processor method described below is perfectly acceptable. You can also make granita-like concoctions in your ice cream freezer.
Makes about 1 quart serving 6 – 8
3/4 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
2 3/4 cups strongly brewed espresso coffee
2 tablespoons dark rum or orange liqueur
Garnish: Lightly whipped barely sweetened heavy cream and dark chocolate shavings if desired
Place water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil to dissolve sugar. Add coffee and rum and remove from heat. Transfer mixture to a non-reactive bowl or pan and place in freezer. After 30 minutes or so as mixture begins to freeze, stir ice from around edges of container into syrup. Every 30 minutes or so continue to stir to incorporate frozen portion back into syrup. As mixture freezes it will have a slushy appearance. As it becomes more solid, scrape a fork across the granita to break it up. Repeat scraping every 30 minutes until the mixture is solid, about 4 hours.
Alternately, you can stir every 30 minutes until granita reaches slushy stage. Let it freeze solid at this point and then remove, chop into small pieces and pulse in a food processor until granita texture is achieved. Return to freezer for 30 minutes or so before serving.
To serve: scoop granita into chilled glasses, top with whipped cream and chocolate shavings if desired. Serve immediately.
LEMON TEA GRANITA
Serves 4 – 6
Any favorite real or herb tea will work here. For something unusual try a smoky tea such as Lapsang Souchong.
2 1/2 cups strong brewed tea
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Garnish: Candied lemon zest (recipe follows)
Bring tea, sugar and lemon juice to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Add zest and transfer to a non-reactive bowl or pan and follow directions for Espresso Granita above.
To make Candied Lemon Zest:
Lemon zest from 2 large lemons, cut into julienne strips
1 cup sugar plus additional for rolling cooked zest
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup dry white wine
Add lemon zests to a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Add sugar, corn syrup and wine to pan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in drained zest. Let stand for 1 hour. Drain again (reserving syrup for other uses) and transfer zest in a single layer to a wire rack. After an hour or so as zest begins to dry, roll in additional sugar. Store airtight in freezer for up to a month.
The best ice cream I think are those that are made from an egg custard base. They are less likely to become icy and grainy.
VANILLA BEAN ICE CREAM
Makes 1 quart or so
You can substitute a couple of teaspoons of vanilla extract for the bean but the flavor is not as interesting to my mind. If using extract, stir it into the chilled custard base just before churning. What we are making here is classic French Custard ice cream.
1-1/2 cups whole milk
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scrapped out
4 large egg yolks
Position a strainer over a medium bowl set in a larger bowl of ice water. This is the “insurance policy” to help quickly cool down the custard mixture to prevent it from scrambling.
In a deep saucepan heat the milk, cream, 1/2 cup of the sugar and the vanilla bean and seeds over medium heat until the mixture is warm (185 degrees or so). In a small bowl whisk the egg yolks with the remaining sugar until pale yellow.
Slowly whisk the warm milk mixture into the egg yolks until combined. This is called “tempering” which is bringing the egg yolks up to temperature slowly again to help prevent scrambling.
Return the mixture to the saucepan and over medium heat cook it, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula until the mixture begins to thicken and steam appears. Temperature should read about 185 degrees on an instant read thermometer. Be careful not to boil the mixture or the eggs will scramble. Immediately strain the custard into the bowl set in the ice bath, stirring occasionally to help it cool down. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled.
Remove and discard the vanilla bean and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions until firm. Transfer to an airtight container, press plastic wrap flush against the surface, cover the container and freeze for up to 3 days.
VANILLA ICE CREAM WITHOUT A MACHINE
Makes about a quart
Yes, you can do it. The recipe below is an adaptation from Serious Eats and J. Kenji López-Alt.
8 large egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
2 cups heavy cream
In large bowl or stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whisk egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, and salt until pale yellow and mixture falls off whisk in thick ribbons, about 5 minutes. Set aside. Heat evaporated milk in medium saucepan on stovetop until it comes to a simmer. Slowly add hot milk to egg mixture, stirring constantly with a heat proof spatula until fully incorporated. Transfer mixture back to saucepan and heat, stirring constantly with the spatula until it thickens (about 180°F). Do not overheat, or eggs will scramble. Chill mixture completely.
Whip 1 cup heavy cream with whisk or in stand mixer until doubled in volume. Add whipped cream to egg mixture and fold in just until no lumps remain. Pour mixture into ice cube trays and freeze for 4 hours, or until solid.
Combine frozen cubes of ice cream (use a spoon or a dull knife to remove them) and remaining heavy cream in food processor and process until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping down sides and breaking up lumps as necessary during process. Transfer mixture to quart container, and freeze for at least 4 more hours before serving.
WARM DARK CHOCOLATE SAUCE
Makes about 1 cup
Everyone needs a chocolate sauce to drizzle on vanilla ice cream or maybe even on your beloved!
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup strong brewed coffee
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch process* cocoa powder
Big pinch salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons dark rum or orange liqueur (optional)
Cut butter into pieces. In a heavy saucepan over medium heat add coffee with brown sugar whisking until sugar is dissolved. Add cocoa powder and salt and whisk until smooth. Add butter, vanilla and rum if using and whisk until butter is melted. Serve warm.
Sauce will keep covered and refrigerated for at least a week.
FRESH CORN ICE CREAM
Makes about 1 quart
This may sound a little strange but it’s quite delicious. The recipe requires tender fresh sweet corn. Frozen or canned just don’t make it. To extract even more flavor, run the point of the knife down the center of each row of kernels to release the milk and then scrape the cobs well to extract every bit of the sweet corn milk. I’ve included an optional addition of fresh chile with this recipe. Also try the ice cream with a little toasted curry powder or ground ginger in place of the chile.
3 cups fresh sweet corn scraped from cob, cobs reserved and broken into 3-inch lengths
4 cups half and half
1 three-inch vanilla bean
8 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fragrant honey
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon finely minced seeded serrano chile (optional)
Combine corn and 1 cup half and half in a blender or food processor and process in short bursts to finely chop corn. Add corn mixture to a saucepan along with remaining cream, corncobs and vanilla bean. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat.
While corn mixture is heating, beat together the egg yolks, sugar, honey, zest and chile in a bowl until well combined. Remove and discard cobs from corn-cream mixture and strain, pressing down on solids. Whisk into egg yolk mixture in a slow steady stream. Remove vanilla bean, split it and scrape seeds into mixture. (Rinse vanilla bean and use to flavor sugar if desired!).
Return mixture to pan and cook custard over low heat, stirring constantly, until it just begins to thicken (approximately 180 degrees). Be careful not to boil or eggs will curdle. Strain through a fine mesh sieve, chill and then freeze in an ice cream freezer according to manufacturer’s directions. Serve garnished with mint sprigs.
BERRY ICE CREAM
Makes 1-1/2 quarts
Any berry could be used here. You might want to strain berries with big seeds like Black or Boysenberries. I don’t because I like the texture. No need to strain with strawberries or raspberries. This is an adaptation from SRJC Culinary Director, Shelly Kaldunski.
3 cups berries, hulled and cut in half
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup half and half
3 large egg yolks
Pinch of salt
Toss the berries with 2 tablespoons and the lemon juice. Gently crush them with a fork and let stand for about 1 hour.
Combine the cream and half and half in a heavy saucepan. Over medium heat bring to a simmer stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Separately in a heat-proof bowl combine the egg yolks, remaining 2/3 cup sugar and the salt. Whisk vigorously for a couple of minutes until mixture lightens in color and doubles in volume.
Remove the cream mixture from the heat. Slowly pour into the egg mixture whisking until smooth. Pour this mixture back into the saucepan and with a heat-proof rubber spatula stir until it forms a custard thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 2 minutes. Be sure not to let it boil or you will scramble the eggs.
Set up an ice bath in a large bowl and nest a smaller bowl inside. Pour custard through a medium mesh strainer into the smaller bowl stirring occasionally until cool. Remove bowl from the ice bath, stir in the berry mixture, cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until very cold, at least 3 hours.
Pour the cold custard into an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s directions. Spoon ice cream into a freezer safe container and place parchment or wax paper directly on the surface. Cover tightly and freeze until firm, at least 2 hours.
SORBETS AND ICES
Sorbets and ices are frozen desserts made from sugar-sweetened water with flavorings typically fruit juice, fruit purée, wine, liqueur or honey. Generally sorbets do not contain dairy ingredients, while sherbets do. They typically are smoother than granitas.
LITCHI SORBET WITH FRESH FRUITS
I’ve included the recipe for this simple sorbet below. Use whatever fresh fruits and berries are best in the season to garnish. Certainly include a tropical fruit or two such as mango and pineapple. Litchi is an Asian fruit with a distinctive flavor. You usually see Litchi canned in syrup but in the summer you can find it fresh in Asian markets. Also look for its hairy cousin Rambutan.
1 can (15 ounces) litchis in syrup
1/2 Tbsp. unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon finely grated lime or lemon zest
Fresh fruits of your choice, attractively cut
Drain off 1/2 cup of the litchi syrup, reserving the rest and transfer to a small bowl. Spoon gelatin over syrup; set aside for a couple of minutes for gelatin to soften.
Meanwhile, heat the sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves; remove from heat. Whisk in the gelatin mixture and set aside.
Put litchis and reserved syrup in blender or food processor (remove seeds if they are still in the fruit) and puree. Add gelatin mixture and zest and process for 15 seconds or so or until very smooth. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Or alternately pour into shallow container; freeze 24 hours, stirring often to keep crystals from forming. Serve with fresh fruits of your choice.
Makes about 1 quart
This is a nice foil for fresh tropical fruits like pineapple and mango. My other favorite use is to scoop small balls into a martini glass and then splash a little vodka over. A delicious version of the classic “Cosmopolitan”.
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1-1/2 pounds (5 cups) fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (or to taste)
2 tablespoons orange flavored liqueur such as Grand Marnier*
Add sugar and water to a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add cranberries and simmer covered until berries have burst, about 10 minutes.
Strain mixture through a medium mesh strainer, pressing down gently on solids to extract the juices. Discard solids and chill the mixture covered for at least 2 hours. Stir in the lime juice, liqueur and freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden.
*If you prefer a non-alcoholic version, you can use one of the orange flavored syrups used to flavor coffees that are widely available.
WINE AND FRESH FRUIT ICE
Makes about 1 quart
You can also make the finished product more sorbet-like by adding a lightly whipped (until frothy) egg white along with other ingredients to the ice cream freezer. Wine choice is up to you but I’d use a white wine for light colored fruits like peaches, melons, apples and a red wine for dark fruits like blueberries, blackberries and the like. Do experiment! A pinch of ground cinnamon or clove is also a nice addition with most fruits.
1-1/4 cups red or white wine
3/4 cup sugar (or to taste)
2 cups pureed unsweetened fresh fruit (strained if desired)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)
Attractively cut fresh fruits for garnish
Add wine and sugar to a small saucepan and cook over moderate heat to dissolve sugar. Stir hot syrup into fruit and add lemon juice and rum if using. Chill in refrigerator or over a bowl of ice until very cold. Freeze in an ice cream freezer according to manufacturer’s directions. Serve with beautifully presented fresh fruits.
A variation on the theme of ices and worth a special mention is shaved ice or “Shave Ice”, as it’s called in Hawaii. It is thought to have originated in Japan in the 1860s, where it’s called kakigori. It came to Hawaii with Japanese plantation workers and quickly became a part of Hawaiian food culture. It is often served over ice cream and topped with flavored syrups. For the fluffiest ice, use a shave-ice machine (about $35 from amazon.com). You can use a food processor to shave your ice from ice cubes but it will be clumpier.
There are many commercial syrups available but better to make your own. Basically it’s a simple syrup with fruit (especially berries and melons) which are pureed and strained. I use the ratio of 1-1/2 cups chopped fruit to 2/3 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons lemon juice. Add fruit, sugar and lemon to a blender and blend till smooth. Adjust sweet and sour to your own taste. Strain thru a fine mesh strainer, cover and refrigerate covered for up to 1week. Freeze for up to 2 months.
Vanilla ice cream
Sweetened condensed milk
Toasted coconut flakes
Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to each serving dish or cup. Top with shave ice, then drizzle with syrup or syrups plus a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. Sprinkle with coconut flakes.
“Semifreddo” in Italian translates to “half-frozen”. If you are concerned about using raw egg yolks, you could whisk the yolks and sugar with one half cup or so of dry white wine in a double boiler over simmering water until light, fluffy and cooked before folding in the whipped cream. It melts relatively quickly so plate just before you plan to serve it, preferably on plates that you’ve put in the freezer for at least 15 minutes.
GINGER AND CRANBERRY SEMIFREDDO WITH BLACKBERRY SAUCE
Yields one 8 cup terrine serving 8 – 10
This is a lovely dessert which could be made in the terrine as suggested here or in individual serving size molds as you desire. Add ins are up to you but this is a favorite.
2-3/4 cups heavy whipping cream
8 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup finely chopped candied ginger
1/3 cup dried finely chopped cranberries or tart cherries
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
Blackberry Sauce (recipe follows)
With an electric mixer beat cream until stiff peaks and set aside. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks until light in color. Gradually beat in sugar and continue beating for 3 – 4 minutes until light and fluffy. Gently fold the egg and cream mixture together along with rest of ingredients through the zest.
Line a 7 -8 cup terrine with plastic wrap and fill with mixture. Cover top with plastic and freeze for 6 hours or overnight.
To serve: Unmold, cut into slices, and surround with fresh blackberry sauce and mint sprigs.
4 cups fresh or IQF blackberries
3/4 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons blackberry brandy (optional)
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and puree. Push through a fine strainer to remove seeds. Store refrigerated up to 5 days.
John Ash © 2021 PD