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A frozen treat to beat the heat, Italian-style

By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / August 10, 2011

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Colder than ice cream, icier than sorbet, and more flavorful than a snow cone, Italian granita cools sweetly on hot summer days. To make this icy treat, you need time, a freezer, and a fork. Granita (pronounced grah-nee-TAH) is essentially flaked ice with fruit juice, pureed fruit, or coffee. The flavor can be sweet, tart, boozy, citrusy, intense, or mild.

To make it at home, begin with a flavorful liquid. For fruit granita, this can be pureed watermelon, strawberries, peaches, or plums; or sweetened lemon, lime, grapefruit, or orange juice. Sugar adds balance (and sweetness, of course) and a sprinkling of fresh herbs - mint, basil, thyme, and tarragon - adds aromatics and an unexpected taste. A shot of liqueur accentuates the underlying flavor, as when Kahlua is added to coffee, Grand Marnier to orange juice, limoncello to lemony ice, and frambroise to raspberry puree. A dash of chili pepper with lime juice or coffee offers intriguing heat.

While no machine is required, you must keep a watchful eye. Transforming liquid into fluffy ice crystals is a multi-step process. The only other thing you need is flat freezer space. Clearing a large area in your freezer is one of the biggest chores. Use a 9-by-13-inch metal or glass pan, the best size for the job. The shallower the liquid, say, no more than a half-inch deep, the faster it freezes. And this size pan provides plenty of surface area for scraping up mounds of icy flakes. Depending on the temperature of your freezer, it can take four to six hours, or more, to complete the granita.

To start, place the pan of liquid in the freezer and let it partially freeze. With the tines of a fork or small spoon, scrape up bits of ice from the bottom and edges. Freeze again, scrape some more, and repeat three more times until the pan is completely filled with icy flecks that have a tender crackly texture.

Walk away from the project for a while and you’ll get a solid block of ice. If this happens, don’t despair. Let the pan sit at room temperature until the ice softens a bit, then scrape it with a fork. Or cut the ice into shards and give them a whir in a blender (with a little water, if necessary) to make a tasty slush.

As with all cold food, the base should be intense before it chills. The more flavorful the liquid, the more invigorating the granita. Taste the mixture before you freeze it to make sure it’s bold and sweet enough.

Serve the frozen confection in dessert cups or glasses (martini or small wine glasses), or if the flavors match, hollowed-out orange, lemon, or grapefruit shells. The flavor deepens as the ice softens, so savor it slowly.

It’s a delicious way to keep your cool.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.