Got Granita? Savoring A Summertime Sweet In Italy

granita con caffe
Chris, Flickr

It will officially be summer in just a few days, and who doesn’t associate long, hot days with ice cream? Or, depending upon your preferences, lactose-digesting capabilities, and what part of the world you’re in, gelato, sorbet, paletas, kulfi, faloodeh, bur bur cha cha or other sweet, frozen treats served around the world.

Gelato is obviously past its tipping point in the U.S, but the granita still isn’t a well-known part of the general populace’s culinary lexicon. In Italy, however, this grainy frozen dessert is a summertime staple. Granite (plural of granita) refers to a dessert that’s scraped at intervals as it freezes, in order to form larger crystals than a typical sorbetto. A true granita should have a coarse texture because it’s made by hand, rather than processed in a machine, which results in a slush.

Coffee or espresso with a bit of sugar is the most commonly used flavoring for granite. Known as granita di café or caffe freddo, this refreshing treat is best served con panna; with unsweetened whipped cream. The first time I ever had one was in Florence, on a freakishly hot October day. Like millions before me, I left crowded the Galleria dell’ Accademia after viewing Michelangelo’s David, thirsty, sweaty, and grumpy.

Several blocks down via Ricasoli, I happened upon a little shop called Gelato Carabé . I was drawn by the wafts of sugary, perfumed air, but it was the menu and hand-crafted appearance of the gelati (mass-produced stuff is often sold out of plastic tubs, but it also tends to look manufactured, and just a little too perfect) that sold me on the place.

eating gelato
minka6, Flickr

The customer in front of me turned away from the counter clutching a cup filled with a rough-looking iced concoction, topped with a soft mound of whipped cream. Its color suggested it contained caffeine. I asked, in crappy Italian, what it was. And then I ordered my first-ever granita di café con panna. Instant addiction. The melding of flavors and textures – bitter espresso, a hint of sugar, grainy ice, silky cream – was the ideal salve for my museum-and-crowd-addled soul.

I returned to the gelateria every day for the remainder of my trip. After I returned home, I learned that owners Antonio and Loredana Lisciandro are from Patti, on Sicily’s northern coast. Antonio’s grandfather was a gelatio, or gelato master, and Antonio became a leading authority on gelato, as well. FYI, gelato has less air incorporated into it than American ice cream, which results in a more dense, flavorful product. Depending upon the region in which it’s made, it may contain eggs, or use cream instead of milk.

The Lisciandro’s import seasonal ingredients from Sicily, including pistachios, hazelnuts and almonds, and the intensely flavored native lemons, which have a thick, bumpy skin. They produce rich, creamy gelati, cremolati (cremolata is similar to sherbet, but made with fresh fruit pulp instead of filtered juice; both are made with milk or cream, whereas sorbetto is dairy-free), and the aforementioned ethereal granite.

Today, Gelato Carabé has two locations in Florence. I’ve since had granita di café con panna all over Italy (I highly recommend enjoying it overlooking the Sant’ Angelo harbor on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples). Barring that, I suggest using this recipe. Get a copy of Laura Fraser’s delicious “An Italian Affair” (which is how I learned about Ischia in the first place). Spoon granita into a pint glass (let’s not kid ourselves with a foofy parfait-style). Find a relaxing place in the shade, and then savor summer, Italian-style.

Kentucky’s Forbidden Donuts

donuts nord's bakery louisville doughnutsFor a place that doesn’t get a whole lot of national press, Kentucky must have as many claims to fame as any state in the country. There’s thoroughbred horseracing, famous family feuds, bluegrass music, and the nation’s most storied college basketball team. And in the food and drink arena, the Bluegrass State is known for KFC, the Bourbon Trail, mutton BBQ, hot browns, burgoo, and mint juleps, not to mention backwoods Old Kentucky favorites like squirrel and possum.
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But I’d never heard of Kentucky as a mecca for donut connoisseurs until I read a piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago. William Grimes described the state as “the last calorie-filled province in an enormous swath of territory where the glazed twist, the apple fritter, the chocolate-iced Long John and the vanilla-cream Bismarck hold sway,” and I was hooked.


Regular readers might recall that I’ve gotten into trouble with my wife over the years for taking the family on long detours to Western New York State’s Amish Country in pursuit of donuts. With that unpleasantness in mind, I didn’t insist on hitting all seven donut shops scattered around the central and northern part of the state mentioned in the article. But we were already planning a long-weekend trip to Kentucky when the Times piece came out, so I added donuts to our weekend to-do list.

hadorn's bakery bardstownOur first stop was Hadorn’s Bakery, an institution in Bardstown, a lovely small town in the heart of bourbon country, for more than 26 years. Hadorn’s didn’t make Grimes’s list but I smelled the place from a block away and noticed the line snaking out the door at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and figured it had to be good.

I had to recalibrate my order three times while standing in line though, as the hungry individuals standing before me snatched the last of the pumpkin donuts and two other varieties before I could call out my order. But I came away with a half dozen decadent little beauties: two glazed, two chocolate glazed, a caramel glazed and a pretzel donut.

The plain glazed were 60 cents, the others 70 or 80, and they were all light, moist, fresh and melt-in-your mouth treats. On my walk back to the hotel my plan to divvy up the donuts when I got back to the room went up in smoke, and my wife and sons had to battle it out for what I’d left in the bag.

 burke's bakery danville kentuckyOn Sunday morning, I was ready for round two at Burke’s Bakery in Danville, another appealing small town that hosted the Vice Presidential debate in October. Burke’s was part of the NYT piece and also came highly recommended by Stuart Meyer, who produces a show called Small Town Flavor. Meyer featured Burke’s in an episode of their show (see below), and after watching the segment, I was ready to get in my car and make the 8-hour drive before the clip had even ended.


But you never want to digest too much hype before seeing a movie and donuts are the same way. Burke’s doesn’t open until Noon on Sundays and they bake only a few varieties of donuts rather than their usual full assortment, so I was unable to get the coconut frosted special or any of the others I had in mind. I had a crumb donut and a glazed, both quite good and a bargain at 60 and 65 cents, but it wasn’t the this-donut-has-changed-my-life experience I was hoping for.

nord's bakery in louisvilleOn Monday morning, I was geared up to try the maple bacon donuts at Nord’s Bakery, a popular neighborhood joint in the Germantown section of Louisville, but my sons, ages 3 and 5, decided to sleep in late, after we dragged them out late three nights in a row. I didn’t have the heart to wake them up but I feared that my chances of getting one of their famous maple bacon donuts were dwindling with each passing minute. Still, as we set off from our hotel around 10 a.m., I felt like we still had a shot since it was a weekday.

But by the time we found the place, alas, the maple bacon donuts were history. I did feel a bit better though when Martha, the young woman at the counter, told me they’d sold out hours ago, rather than mere minutes, and my mood brightened further after I tucked into a crunch nut donut that was full of nutty, coconut goodness.

We repaired to Sunergos Cofffee next door with a bag full of the little treasures, (they don’t mind and their coffee is great) and my 3-year-old son James devoured his chocolate glazed donut so quickly that he tried to attack my wife’s donut while it was still in her mouth – a sure sign that he knew he’d stumbled across a pretty damn good find.

“This kid is like the Homer Simpson of donuts,” my wife complained, trying to restrain him with an outstretched leg.


Nord’s was the clear winner of our Kentucky donut quest – the others were very good but these were sell-your-soul-to-the-devil-for-them good. Like the Rolling Stones song, I didn’t quite get the donuts I wanted, but I learned that the Bluegrass State does indeed have one more little known treasure to be proud of: its forbidden donuts. But if you want to reach donut nirvana in Kentucky, you need to get your donut loving behind out of bed much earlier than I did to get the good stuff.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Colorado’s Most Surprising Dessert: The Scrap Cookie

cookies While Colorado is home to many unique chocolate shops and bakeries, you usually know what you’re ordering. Even if you purchase something unusual, like wasabi ginger dark chocolate or goat cheese and crushed black pepper buttercream, the name will give you a hint as to what the ingredients are. If you visit the old mining town of Ouray, however, you can stop in Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee for a more surprising kind of dessert: the Scrap Cookie.

Located at 520 Main Street, the shop is always full of locals craving delicious sweets and caffeine-filled coffees. While they have unique chocolate varieties, like bacon clusters with Chardonnay salt and coconut bark with pumpkin and sunflower, the most popular item on the menu is the Scrap Cookie. After making their chocolates for the day, the staff save the scraps and mix them with their family-invented homemade cookie batter. When guests come in and order the cookie, they won’t know what kind it is until they take a bite. My Scrap Cookie ended up containing all my favorite additions, like macadamia nuts, toffee, caramel and truffle pieces.

While ordering a Scrap Cookie is $2.50, you can also purchase two cookies and have Mouse’s make it into an ice cream sandwich for about $10. I was told by my canyoning guide that they won’t always do it. However, if you say a local told you about it, they will.

Five holiday cookies from around the world

holiday cookiesI love good old American iced sugar cookies as much as the next person. Yet there’s a whole world of cookiedom out there, and the holdiays are the best excuse to do a little experimenting.

Whether you prefer your cookies buttery, spiced, crisp, or iced, there’s something to suit your…ahem, taste. Check out the following holiday favorites from around the world.

Springerle
These embossed, biscuit-like German cookies–usually flavored with anise–date back to the 14th century. They’re traditionally made using a wooden or ceramic mold (human figures are a common theme) or a rolling pin decorated with carved-out depressions. Think of them as edible art, especially if you have the talent and patience to ice them.

Shortbread
For butter sluts like me, few things beat a well-made piece of shortbread. True shortbread is Scottish in origin (the recipe we’re most familiar with today–flour, sugar, and butter–is attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots). Because the ingredients were considered luxury goods, shortbread became synonymous with festive occasions, including Christmas.

Shortbread has become ubiquitous throughout the UK, and similar (but inferior, in my humble opinion) cookies are found throughout Scandinavia. What makes good shortbread so special? The quality of the butter is paramount, but also the handling of the dough. Any baked good with a fat content that high is bound to be tasty, but overworking the dough–whether it’s rolled or patted out by hand–ensures a cookie the equivalent of a hockey puck. And I’m a purist: no crystallized sugar or fancy shapes for me, please. Just give me the cookie.

[Photo credits: Flickr user JeMaSiDi]holiday cookiesMa’amoul
These rich, Lebanese semolina cookie/pastry hybrids traditionally have their top half pressed into a decorative mold, while the bottom half is stuffed with a filling of chopped fruit and nuts such as dates, figs, walnuts, pistachios, walnuts, or almonds. Ma’amoul may be round or dome-shaped, or slightly flattened, and are categorically a form of shortbread due to their high fat (butter or shortening) content. They also contain rose and/or orange flower water, which gives them a subtle floral essence.

Ma’amoul are popular in the Levantine cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as that of the Arab Persian Gulf states. They’re a frequent site during religious holidays an festivals, including Ramadan and Purim. In Jewish communities, date-filled ma’amoul are a favorite Hanukkah treat.

Mandelbrot
Some liken these twice-baked almond cookies to “Jewish” or “Askenazic” biscotti, and it’s a fairly accurate description. The name comes from the Yiddish for “almond bread.” Like biscotti, they’re shaped into a loaf, sliced, and baked twice to achieve a hard texture. They’re traditionally dunked in tea.

It’s believed that mandelbrot may have found it’s way to medieval Eastern Europe via the significant Jewish population residing in Northern Italy. According to food writer and Jewish cuisine expert Joan Nathan, the durability of the cookies made them a popular Sabbath dessert, because they traveled well via merchants and rabbis. Mandelbrot are also served at Hanukkah, because they’re parve (made with oil, instead of butter, aka dairy).

Melting Moments
holiday cookies
Although similar to Mexican Wedding cookies–those tender little shortbread domes dusted with powdered sugar–Melting Moments don’t contain ground nuts (the Latin versions–which have been traced back to medieval Arab culture–always contain ground almonds or other nuts, which were then a delicacy).

I first discovered Melting Moments, which rely upon the addition of cornstarch for their trademark disintegrating quality, while working for a Kiwi chef in London. Charmed by the name, I soon discovered that these Australian/Kiwi cookies are holiday favorites. They’re ridiculously easy to make, consisting primarily of butter, powdered sugar, and flour in addition to the aforementioned cornstarch (called “corn flour” in UK/Aussie recipes). They’re often made as sandwich cookies filled with icing (because you can never have too many Melting Moments).

There are literally dozens of other holiday cookies out there, ranging from the anise-fragranced wafers of the Nordic countries and soft amareti or macarons of Italy, to the spice cookies of Central Europe. An easy affordable gift idea: bake up a batch that correlate to your recipient’s ethnic heritage or favorite/dream vacation spot. Happy holidays!

[Photo credits: ma’amoul, Flickr user àlajulia;melting moment, Flicker user ohdarling]

Easy Gingerbread Men Cookie Recipe

Cathay Pacific wants your dessert

Pastry chefs, caterers, home cooks and Mom’s packing lunches, listen up: Cathay Pacific wants your dessert to feature on their international flights.

The “Art of the Dessert” contest asks travelers to create their own Asian-inspired dessert, and submit a photo and recipe on Cathay Pacific’s Facebook page with a brief entry on why your dessert deserves to win.

Peter Ho, the Regional Catering Manager for Cathay Pacific North America for the last 43 years, will judge the entires. If your dessert passes the quality test of Mr. Ho, you could be in the running for a free business class flight to Hong Kong and your dessert will be featured on Cathay Pacific’s in-flight menu.

Need some help? Here is a list of some of the most popular Asian desserts. Add your own spin to this favorites and enter to win:

  • Steamed pears
  • Spicy coconut custard
  • Mango pudding
  • Lotus Leaf pancakes
  • Fried custard
  • Fortune cookies

Think you’ve got the sweets for this game? Enter the contest here and get baking!