On a warm day, lemon granita is a wonderfully refreshing treat that's perfect to cool you down. It has a great sweet-tart balance, and is so easy to make at home. You'll want it on standby all summer long.
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My kids, not too surprisingly, are always up for ice cream on a warm day. And most days, I'm pretty happy to join them. However when it's really hot out, I often find ice cream a little too heavy to have more than a tiny amount of.
That's when lighter cold treats like sorbet and granitas come into their own.
What is granita?
Granita is a water-based frozen treat that originates in Sicily in the far South of Italy. It uses the same basic ingredients as a sorbet - water, sugar and flavor often in the form of pureed fruit or fruit juice - but the difference is in texture.
The name "granita" comes from "granito" meaning "grainy" which is very much a reflection of the texture. Unlike a sorbet which is typically churned to aerate it and make it smooth, granitas are instead typically scraped during freezing. This means it has larger ice crystals and a more granular texture.
The end result can seem a little more like shaved ice, but the difference is you combine the water and flavor at the beginning of the process. Shaved ice, meanwhile, adds a flavored syrup only right before serving.
The origins of granita
Granita is believed to originate from the Arab occupation of Sicily when they introduced sherbet ("sharbat"), a drink made with fruit, rosewater and ice.
The idea was adapted locally by "Nivaroli" (men of snow) who collected snow from Mount Etna and other high mountains in the winter and stored it in caves to be used during the heat and droughts of summer. They brought the snow down to the coastal towns in warmer weather and some was used for granitas.
At this time, it were more commonly known as "rattata", meaning "grated" as the Nivaroli grated ice from their blocks and added syrups or juices (so more like shaved ice).
Over time, with the invention of refrigeration, the style was adapted more to what granita looks like today. People combined water, fruit juices or purees and sugar then froze the mixture. Some of the original flavors included lemon, strawberry, almond and coffee granita with these all still popular today.
The texture tends to vary between the East and West of Sicily, with it generally being a smoother, more consistent texture in the West as slushy-type machines are more common there. Meanwhile in the East, it tends to be more coarse, sometimes part liquid and with larger ice crystals.
Methods for making granita at home
One of the great things about this treat is that it's so easy to make at home and is perfect for scaling up and down, as suits. You have two main ways to make it - the more typical and arguably traditional is to make the base, freeze it and then break it up with a fork at regular intervals as it freezes.
Alternatively, you can freeze the mixture completely and then put it in the blender to break it up. You could also start it in an ice cream maker. These both give a smoother texture, a little more like the Western Sicilian style, and require less watching the time to attend to it. However, particularly using an ice cream maker, you could argue that it's really more of a sorbet.
The method you use is partly to taste, but here I have gone with scraping with a fork for a more typical granita texture.
Tips for making lemon granita
For this lemon version, you simply combine water, lemon juice and sugar which you warm gently to dissolve the sugar. You can make it with or without the zest as you prefer. If you leave some zest in, it gives a slight graininess when you eat it but it does add a bit of extra lemony flavor.
One option is to add some zest as you warm the mixture then chill it to help infuse a bit of flavor from it. Then you can strain it before freezing to avoid the pieces in the end granita.
Especially if you are going to use zest, it's best to use unwaxed organic lemons. Also, bear in mind that Sicilian lemons are typically relatively aromatic and sweet so try to go for a variety that is a little less sharp, if possible. Using part Meyer lemon would be an option as well, if available.
Depending on your lemons and taste, you may want to adjust the amount of sugar in this recipe. As written, this makes a relatively tart granita in most cases. Personally, I find that perfect to be more refreshing, but it may not suit all tastes.
Once you have made your base and it has chilled, you simply pour into a container to freeze it in. For a small amount as here, a loaf tin is perfect as it provides lots of surface area that chills well and so cools the mixture more quickly.
Then, simply take it out of the freezer at regular intervals and use a fork to break up the crystals.
This lemon granita is easy to make with only a few simple ingredients. It's light, with a great sweet-tart flavor and wonderfully refreshing. You'll soon be transported to Sicily as you enjoy this tasty icy scoop.
Try these other frozen treats:
- Cherry ice cream (no churn)
- No churn pumpkin ice cream
- Roasted strawberry ice cream
- Plus get more snack recipes and Italian recipes in the archives.
- 1 cup water 240ml
- ¼ cup sugar 50g, or a little more if you prefer less tart
- ¼ cup lemon juice 60ml, freshly squeezed
- zest ½ - 1 lemon optional, to taste
- Place the water, sugar, lemon juice and zest, if using, in a small pan. Warm over a medium heat until it at most reaches a simmer (don't boil), stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves.
- Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool. You can speed this up after a few minutes by placing in the fridge.
- Once cool, strain the mixture, if you prefer not to have the zest in there, and pour into in a shallow container such as a loaf tin. Place the container in the freezer and take it out at roughly 30 minute intervals. When you take it out, use a fork to break up the ice crystals, pulling them in from the edge of the container. Once broken up evenly, re-freeze and repeat after another 30 minutes.
- Once the mixture is close to completely frozen, fluff up one last time then scoop into glasses to serve.
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