Gelato: A cool taste of Italian tradition

When the crushing summer sun threatens to beat you senseless, do as the Sicilians: Cool off with un cono o una coppa di gelato; also known as a cone or cup of the most luscious bit of frozen confection to ever hit your tongue.

Culinary lore has it that flavored ices sprang from the snows of Sicily’s Mount Etna, but whether or not that’s true, it’s a fact that Sicilians love their gelato beyond measure.

So much so that, on steamy mornings, adults and youngsters alike consume brioche con gelato, which brilliantly merges a French culinary icon with a southern Italian staple. The dense, buttery bun is slashed through the center and crammed with gelato, creating a breakfast sandwich that’s made even more pleasurable when it’s washed down with a bracing espresso.

This cheekier, more intense first cousin to ice cream is wildly popular all over Italy and Europe. In fact, some gelaterias in Italy are open until the wee hours. It’s not astonishing in the least to find locals elbowing one another at two in the morning in order to get in a nightcap of pistachio gelato before hopping on their scooters and zooming home to hit the sack.

While gelato has been an Italian tradition for centuries, the type found in Sicily is prepared quite differently from gelato anywhere else. The secret lies in the simplicity of its base — crema rinforzata — no doubt influenced by muhallabia, the sweet milk pudding introduced to Sicily through its Arab conquerors. What sets Sicilian gelato apart from traditional gelato and ice cream is that it contains neither cream nor eggs. Instead, cornstarch takes on the role of stabilizer and thickener. And, as a bonus, despite the custard’s exotic moniker, it’s ridiculously easy to make at home.

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Most read

  1. 1 Mary Oliver death: Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver dead at 83
  2. 2 Honor student suspended after using counterfeit money for school lunch
  3. 3 After dust settles on QB transfers, Georgia in good shape with Fromm

Gelato, in general, boasts about half as much butterfat as American ice cream — and Sicilian gelato even less so because it contains milk and no cream at all. On the face of it, that might leave you with the impression that Sicilian gelato doesn’t taste as rich as its northern brother or American cousin. On the contrary. It tastes just as creamy, if not more so. While fat offers up an unctuous feel, it also coats the mouth, providing a dulling force shield, if you will, that keeps the flavors from popping through; so less butter fat equals more intense flavor.

And, unlike traditional ice cream, gelato isn’t pumped up with a bunch of superfluous air. Churning time isn’t quite as lengthy as it is with ice cream, and it’s served slightly warmer, for a softer, more lush finished product. You should notice a dense, almost chewy quality to a well-made gelato.

Preparing Sicilian gelato is a simple affair. Cook up a custard base, let it chill (overnight in the fridge, or a fraction of the time in an ice bath), pour it into your ice cream maker, then stash it in the freezer. And while it’s best served freshly churned, you can freeze it in an air tight container for a week or so. Chances are, it won’t last nearly that long.

Once you get the base down — milk, cornstarch and sugar — you can unleash your creativity when it comes to flavorings — from fruit (overripe yields more flavor) to nut pastes and infusions. And gelato lends itself beautifully to a bit of booze. Chocolate gelato benefits from a splash of bourbon or rum, and fruit gelato is very happy receiving a jigger of flavorless vodka. Since alcohol doesn’t freeze, a couple tablespoons of liquor mixed into the base before it hits the ice cream maker will keep the gelato from getting too hard.

Tips:

Follow these simple tips and you’ll easily turn your kitchen into the neighborhood gelateria.

After you’ve added your slurry of milk and cornstarch to the mix, don’t bring it to a rolling boil; let it simmer and stir it gently for up to four minutes. You want to remove any starchy taste, but overcooking could result in the mixture thinning. And this may sound crazy, but if you want to taste your custard (and you should), use a clean spoon; believe it or not, you have digestive enzymes in your mouth, and when you double dip, they can cause your thickened custard to become thin.

Before chilling the custard, place a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to keep a skin from forming as it cools.

If you don’t want to wait until the next day to enjoy your gelato, let the custard cool to room temperature, then place the pan in a mixture of ice and water, and stir until cool, then refrigerate a couple of hours until it’s completely cold.

Feel free to experiment with the base. Go ahead and substitute equal amounts of low fat milk for whole milk, or use part cream, or part half-and-half. Swap brown sugar for white and Karo light syrup for any sugar. Consider honey, too. The base is very flexible.

Kicked-up Chocolate Gelato (dairy free)

This recipe, with deceptively few calories and little fat, provides an intense chocolate flavor with a hint of fire and an exotic cinnamon perfume. You can use less chili if you like. And if you want to make it a dairy gelato, swap out the almond milk for regular milk — whole or low fat.

Hands on: 10 minutes Total time: 8 hours Serves: 8

4 cups plain, unsweetened almond milk

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons molasses

1/2 cup Karo light syrup

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1/8 teaspoon ground chilie peppers (I use freshly ground chilies de arbol, you also can use cayenne)

1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)

Take three tablespoons of the cold almond milk and place it in a small cup or bowl and add the cornstarch. Mix well to make a slurry. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, add the milk and the rest of the ingredients, except the vanilla bean paste and cornstarch slurry. Whisk over medium heat until the ingredients are blended and the bittersweet chocolate has melted.

Bring mixture to a low simmer and whisk in the cornstarch mixture, stirring gently for about three minutes, or until the mixture is slightly thickened and you can’t taste the cornstarch.

Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste.

Transfer the gelato mixture to a bowl, then immediately place plastic wrap on top of the mixture, and refrigerate overnight or until it’s completely chilled.

Churn according to your ice cream maker’s directions. The gelato will have the consistency of soft-serve ice cream. When it’s done, place it in an air-tight container and freeze. Because gelato is served at a slighter higher temperature than your freezer, store it inside the freezer door, if possible. Remove it from the freezer about five to 10 minutes before serving.

Per serving, based on 8: 128 calories (percent of calories from fat, 14), 1 gram protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 2 grams fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 187 milligrams sodium.

Fresh Ginger Gelato

The ginger gives this gelato a refreshing punch; making it an ideal finish to a spicy meal. Serving good gingersnaps wouldn’t be considered overkill.

Hands on:15 minutes Total time: 8 hours Serves: 8

3 cups whole milk, plus 3 tablespoons

1 tablespoon cornstarch

3/4 cups sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 ounces fresh ginger, roughly chopped and unpeeled. About 2 cups.

1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)

Make a slurry with the 3 tablespoons milk and cornstarch. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, add the milk, sugar, salt and ginger. Bring to a simmer and stir until sugar has dissolved. Cover and remove the mixture from heat. Let the mixture steep to absorb flavor from the ginger — about 1 hour. You can taste it and see if you want it to sit longer.

After an hour or so, strain the mixture, discard the ginger, and return the pan to the heat. Bring it to a low simmer and stir in the cornstarch and milk mixture. Stir gently and simmer until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of cream — about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste.

Transfer the gelato mixture to a bowl, then immediately place plastic wrap on top of the mixture, and refrigerate overnight or until it’s completely chilled. Churn according to your ice cream maker’s manufacturer’s directions.

Per serving, based on 8: 157 calories (percent of calories from fat, 19), 4 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 3 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 13 milligrams cholesterol, 118 milligrams sodium.

Cafe Au Lait Gelato

Whole coffee beans give this gelato a mellow flavor that brings to mind a bowl of sweet cafe au lait. The longer you steep the beans, the stronger the coffee flavor. The Karo syrup in gelato helps to keep ice crystals from forming, for a smooth texture.

Hands on: 10 minutes Total time: 8 hours Serves: 8

4 cups whole milk plus, 3 tablespoons

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3/4 cup sugar (If you prefer your coffee less sweet, use only 1/4 cup sugar)

1 cup Karo light syrup

1-and-1/2 cups whole coffee beans (I use Starbucks Iced Coffee Blend whole beans)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)

Make a slurry with the 3 tablespoons milk and cornstarch. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, add the milk, sugar, Karo syrup, coffee beans and salt. Stir and bring the mixture to a simmer. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Cover, and set aside, letting the coffee beans steep in the hot milk mixture — about an hour or so. You can taste the mixture to see if you want a stronger coffee flavor. Note that the custard will be a pale cafe au lait color.

After an hour or so, strain the mixture, dispose of the coffee beans and return the mixture to the stove.

Bring to a simmer and whisk in the cornstarch slurry, mixing well and maintaining a constant simmer for about three to four minutes, or until it reaches the consistency of cream.

Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste.

Transfer the gelato mixture to a bowl, then immediately place plastic wrap on top of the mixture, and refrigerate overnight or until it’s completely chilled.

Churn according to your ice cream maker’s manufacturer’s directions.

Per serving, based on 8: 276 calories (percent of calories from fat, 13), 4 grams protein, 58 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 4 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 17 milligrams cholesterol, 180 milligrams sodium.

More from AJC