Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden
I’m the biggest heat wimp that’s ever walked the earth. Around the middle of May, I start dreading the summer because it means I’ll have to sweat my way through everything I cook. With windows in my kitchen that seem to face the sun at all moments of the day and no air conditioning to offset the heat, by dinnertime the last thing I want to do is turn on the stove—or, heaven forfend!, the oven. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still crave something sweet after dinner, or want to offer dessert when I have people over for a meal. And, sure, okay, the whole fresh berries and cream thing is nice and all, but . . . if I’m going to serve dessert I’d like it to be something that’s a little bit more of a treat.
Enter the granita, the simplest and most versatile summer dessert! So simple and so versatile, in fact, that you’ll want to make it even when it’s not eight million degrees out. Granita is originally from Sicily and popular all over Italy, but has made a major splash in the U.S. over the last decade. Like ice cream, it can be made with combination of flavors you like, but unlike ice cream, you don’t need any special equipment apart from a blender or food processor, a freezer-safe pan, and a fork. You can make as much or as little as you like, and, aside from opening the freezer every hour or so to give it a good scraping, there’s really nothing to it.
The first granita I ever had was white grape. It was delicate and cool, the flavor only a whisper. I fell in love with how light it was, how refreshing, but I wanted something with a bolder flavor. So the first granita I made at home was (unsurprisingly to anyone who has seen me suck down caffeine in the mornings) coffee-flavored. It was gorgeous, and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve flavored granitas with just about every fruit that grows in summer and I have some definite preferences. Because granita is delicate and melts in your mouth immediately, my favorites are combinations of flavors that include something with a kick to it. Think about what you lean toward in jams for a good indicator of what kind of fruit granita you’ll like: simple or complex? very sweet or a bit tart? a little savory? herbaceous?
If you can liquefy it, you can put it in a granita, so the sky’s the limit. You can make a granita that matches the meal it follows, or one that complements it. Served Italian food? How about a red wine granita? Barbeque of burgers and hot dogs with the kids for July 4th? Why not make a trio of fruit granitas: red (strawberry), white (white grape), and blue (blueberry)? After a very light meal of salad or gazpacho, try a richer granita flavored with chocolate and cayenne pepper. There really is a granita for every summer meal!
Like all frozen desserts, the taste is never as intense once it’s frozen as it is at room temperature, so when you’re concocting your granita, err on the side of bolder flavors. That said, even a mild granita is pleasant. The one mistake you can make is in the texture. If you’re using whole fruit or veg and blending it, make sure you strain the mixture to remove any lumps. (I may or may not have had a dreadful incident with a blueberry granita where I decided not to strain it so it would be rustic . . . which ended in everyone at my dinner party grinning at each other with blueberry skins stuck between our teeth. Not attractive. Oops.)
For bonus points, you can garnish your granitas with elements of the flavors you use in them: fresh strawberries atop your strawberry granita or fresh mint in your lemon-mint granita. Or, mix it up a bit: add sliced cherries to your blueberry granita or frozen slices of banana to a chocolate one.
Here are a few of my favorite fruit granitas, but the fun is really in the experimentation. As a general rule of thumb, you can plan for about four to five parts fruit/veg/herb to one part liquid. Now, sally forth and granita!
Spicy Mango-Ginger Granita
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 4 hours
Makes about 6 servings
- 3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) chopped peeled fresh ginger
- 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
- 4 cups (1 1/4 pounds) peeled chopped mangoes (about 2 medium mangoes)
- 1/2 cup water (or you could use another fruit juice to add to flavor, or mango juice to intensify it, or you could spike your granita!)
- 1/3 cup fresh lime juice (from about 2-3 medium limes)
- 1/2-1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (depending on how much of a kick you’d like)
Grind the ginger and sugar together in a food processor or blender until combined. Add the mango, water (or juice, or booze), lime juice, and red pepper flakes and puree until smooth. Strain into a shallow, freezer-safe baking dish to get about 2 cups liquid. Discard solids (or eat!). Cover and freeze for about 1 hour, then scrape with a fork. Re-cover and freeze, scraping every hour or so until the whole dish is frozen and fluffy with ice crystals.
Basil-Mint Peach Variation:
Replace the ginger with about 15 each fresh basil and mint leaves, the mangoes with peaches (about 4 medium peaches—no need to peel them before chopping), and the lime juice with lemon juice.