I’m walking down a shaded cobblestone street in Palermo. It’s only nine o’clock in the morning but the blazing sun is already trying to assert itself in the open spaces between the awnings and balconies. I’ve had a morning espresso and am looking for a little “Sicilian breakfast”. I find a caffe and order a brioche filled with frothy, fragrant peach gelato. It comes on a little square of paper and I continue on my way, eating my breakfast as I go. The streets of old Palermo exude a mysterious air, daring you to satisfy your curiosity and investigate the dead ends and alleyways. I had come to Sicily by boat from Naples a few days ago. It was an overnight trip and upon arriving in the harbor I got the distinct impression that I was now in a place that bore only some resemblance to mainland Italy.
As a chef, of course, I am most interested in the food. I walk through the Vucciria, the open-air food market that snakes through town. I eat at small restaurants, savoring charred sausages, pasta with fried eggplant, breadcrumbs and ricotta salata, and more exotic dishes like black couscous with cuttlefish. The North African influence on the food of Sicily is obvious and intriguing. The pastries are wonderful of course, but the gelato is what I crave, pretty much at any hour of the day. Why does the gelato in Sicily taste so different, I wonder? It’s light, almost foamy, refreshing yet flavorful.
Eventually I end up in Taormina, a beautiful seaside town, bordered on one side by the slopes of Mount Etna. I drink a lot of very cheap but very good wine, eat more terrific food, and of course, continue on my gelato odyssey. I rent an apartment there where I can buy food in the market and cook at home, trying to recreate some of the wonderful dishes I’ve been tasting. The volcanic soil produces amazing fruit and vegetables.
When I get home, I work on a base recipe for vanilla gelato, Sicilian style. As in most things that are deceptively simple, it takes some work and experimentation to get it right. The resulting recipe, which is very easy to make (and therefor great to make at home if you happen to have an ice cream or gelato machine) is not custard-based like French ice cream, and has a much lower cream content than American ice cream. That absence of fat allows more flavor to come through, and also makes it easier to eat and digest. In any case, I’ve been making Sicilian-style gelato for a quite a while, and it is, of course, a staple of ours at L’Arte della Pasticceria.
We pay close attention to temperatures- after the gelato base is made, we process it in our beautiful Milanese gelato machine. It then goes into a freezer set at 0 degrees F. to set for a few hours, after which it goes right into our gelato display case, set at 10 degrees F., and it’s served to our customers from there. By never allowing the gelato to deep-freeze, we keep the texture consistent and avoid iciness.
Making gelato at home is fun and pretty much worry-free. You can make your gelato base, chill it, then let it process in your home ice cream machine while you are eating dinner, if you like. When it’s ready, you can eat it immediately or spoon it into a container and let it set up in the freezer for an hour or so, then enjoy!
I like to eat my vanilla gelato either sandwiched in a fresh brioche or with a generous spoonful of amarena cherries in syrup (or both).
Note: Amarena cherries are small flavorful dark cherries, grown in Italy, that are preserved in syrup and sold in jars. They are available at specialty food stores and on-line.
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ cup heavy cream (I use fresh heavy cream from a local dairy)
2/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Combine the cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of the milk in a small bowl, whisking to dissolve the cornstarch. Set aside.
- Put the remaining milk, cream, sugar, and salt into a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk, then add the scraped bean to the milk as well. Put the pot on a medium flame and bring slowly to a simmer.
- When the mixture starts to simmer, whisk in the cornstarch mixture. Continue whisking until the mixture comes back to a boil and starts to thicken. Cook, whisking, for 1 minute.
- Strain the mixture into a bowl, then put the bowl into a larger bowl filled halfway with ice. Add cold water to make an ice bath.
- When the gelato base is cool, process it in a gelato or ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Fill a container with the gelato and put in the freezer. The gelato is best eaten about an hour or so after resting in the freezer.