Sicilians have a curious, but fun, approach to breakfast, and one which we fully embrace. They typically shy away from the hearty breakfasts we enjoy in America, opting instead for espresso (of course), and something light, like toast with jam, or even just a cookie.
Before my first visit with Tony to Sicily, I’d read in one of our guidebooks that Sicilians will often enjoy a frozen treat, like ice cream or granita, to start their day. I mentioned this to Tony, who said he’d had granita for breakfast several times on previous visits, but he rolled his eyes and positively scoffed at the inclusion of ice cream. I was disappointed to hear this as I’m an ice cream lover to the core and loved the idea of getting to eat it for breakfast.
On our first morning in Sicily, Tony’s Aunt, Zia Pinnucia, woke us up early so that she could parade us around her little town of Rosolini and introduce us to her friends and more extended family. Our first stop was at the home of a family friend, a sweet, elderly woman who apologized for not having anything prepared for us. She started a pot of espresso on the stove, then went to her freezer and pulled out a box of ice cream novelties, encouraging us to take one. It was only 8:15 in the morning, but I happily reached out for my treat while shooting Tony my sweetest smile.
On our third morning there, we walked down the block to the local bar where I was introduced to the famous Sicilian breakfast tradition known as granita con brioche. Granita is a wonderfully refreshing, semi-frozen dessert made from sugar, water and added flavors such as fresh fruit, almonds, or coffee. The word granita is derived from the word grana, which means grainy, and its texture is somewhere between sorbet and a snow cone.
The Sicilian custom is to break off pieces of the brioche, a slightly sweet, yeasty bread, and dip it into the granita. As pleased as I was to have had ice cream for breakfast two days prior, nothing could prepare me for the decadence of granita con brioche in the morning. In our opinion, this is what living “la dolce vita,” the sweet life, is all about, a philosophy the Sicilians understand better than most. Tony and I savored our granita, almond for him, lemon for me, while envisioning a life where this is a daily norm.
Granita is easy to make, and the only utensil you will need is a fork. Texture is very important when it comes to granita, and the key is to agitate the liquid several times during the freezing process. This step is not to be overlooked, as it is what separates granita from a common slush.
Be creative with your flavorings and experiment with different fruits and flavors. Right now, Tony and I are enjoying the abundance of rhubarb we’ve received from friends to make our granita. With its gorgeous pink color and upfront tartness, rhubarb granita is the perfect thirst-quencher and is a great way to utilize this monster of the garden.
If you have frozen lemon juice leftover from making our limoncello last month, our recipe for Granita al Limone is the perfect opportunity to use it; for an adult treat, drizzle a little limoncello over the granita just before serving. Whether you enjoy your granita for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or sometime in between, it’s hard to go wrong with this cool Sicilian treat.
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
1 lb. rhubarb, cut into ½-inch slices
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
Juice of half a lemon, freshly squeezed
1. Combine all ingredients in a sauce pot and cook over medium-high for at least 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally. All the sugar should be dissolved and the rhubarb will begin breaking down in texture. For more intense flavor, cook for 40 to 45 minutes.
2. When ready, place a large fine-mesh strainer over a shallow baking dish (9×13 glass or metal pan). Use a ladle to transfer the rhubarb liquid to the strainer, a spoonful at a time. Gently use the back of the ladle to push the liquid through the sieve, while keeping the pulp of the rhubarb out of the mixture. Remove the rhubarb mush periodically from the strainer and discard.
When finished straining the liquid, the mixture should be clear and pink, and no higher than one inch of the dish. If there are any particles in the mixture, you will need to strain again until it is clear.
3. Place the dish in the freezer – do not cover. To achieve the proper texture of a granita, the liquid must be scraped with a force every 30 minutes for 2 to 3 hours. Scrape the length of the pan (not the width) back and forth with a fork, about ten times each way. Once you’ve completed all the scraping, cover with plastic wrap or tin foil and freeze until serving.
4. To serve, use a round ice cream scoop and garnish with fresh mint or lemon balm. To vary this recipe, you can add strawberries, fresh mint, raspberries, nutmeg or ginger to the rhubarb while it’s cooking.
To store: Keep in the freezer up to one week.
Tony’s Tip: Chill the serving bowls or glasses in the freezer or refrigerator before serving to ensure the granita does not melt too quickly.
To make Granita al Limone (Lemon Granita)
1 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed or frozen
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
In a medium saucepan, combine the water sugar over medium heat until the sugar is fully dissolved and the liquid is completely clear, stirring occasionally, about five minutes. Set aside and let cool for ten minutes. Add the lemon juice and pour into a shallow baking dish. Place the dish in the freezer, uncovered, and follow step 3 from above.