Forget Ice Cream, Go With Sicilian Gelato

gelato-homeMade

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.

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.

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. (This recipe uses no dairy 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.

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.

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

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 chile 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.