Monthly Archives: August 2014

Gelato in Sicily

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.

Gelato Post 2
Vanilla Gelato with Amarena Cherries in Syrup

 Vanilla Gelato

 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.


Clara Louise Tea Room

I’ve been obsessed with food, restaurants, bakeries, and bars since I was about five years old. I grew up in an Italian American home in central New Jersey. My grandparents barely spoke English, and the household was very food and celebration centric. I was a shy child but when we went as a family to my favorite restaurant, the Clara Louise Tea Room, I would run to the doorway that went into the kitchen and peer inside, fascinated. Very daring for a timid kid like me.

We went there a lot- sometimes I would go with my mother and aunts for lunch, sitting downstairs at very feminine flowery glass tables. Other times I’d go with my parents, aunts, and uncles for dinner upstairs in a masculine room with hunting prints and lots of wood. There were waiters in red jackets and things like jellied consomme and sole almondine on the menu. Every year on my birthday, the waiters would bring me a piece of vanilla cake covered with fluffy seven minute frosting, colored sprinkles and a sparkler stuck in the middle. It was a great place and I guess it made quite an impression on me because I’ve been in the food industry now for 30 years.

As a pastry chef, I’m often involved in peoples’ celebratory events. I say “involved” but of course what I mean is that I make cakes or other desserts for them. It’s such an emotional thing, and cakes are so symbolic, that I often feel like I really am involved in a way that’s meaningful. It’s one of the nicest aspects of the profession.

When I tell people what I do for a living, they always seem charmed and fascinated. They get a wistful look in their eyes, thinking, no doubt, that if only they could do something creative and crafty for a living…I usually tell them that yes, it’s a great profession and I’m so happy to make beautiful pastries by hand and its wonderful to feed people delicious things and make them happy. But if they press me further, I can’t help but tell them that the food industry is crazy. Crazy!! Restaurant people are like circus people, for God’s sake. It’s definitely an alternative lifestyle, so if you are looking for normalcy, I tell them, look elsewhere. I’ve dealt with celebrity chefs, lunatic millionaire entrepreneurs, a philandering chef ex-husband, unbalanced employees, thieving literary agents, and the French. But I’m used to it by now. Besides, boring isn’t for me.

In any case, these days I’m pretty civilized, making pastries and desserts here at L’Arte della Pasticceria, a lovely little pastry shop and café in northern Bergen County. How I came to be in charge of the kitchen at L’Arte is another story, and what came to pass in the years in between the Clara Louise Tea Room and L’Arte is an even longer story.

I love cooking, baking, and eating, but I also love reading and writing about food. I develop all of my own recipes and I like to share them. So, I am hopeful that in starting a blog of my own, I will share my food experiences and knowledge, and interact with people that feel the same way that I do- fascinated and obsessed with the world of food and eating!