CHIAVARI, Italy - Here’s a bit of midsummer madness I picked up the other day. The word sorbet comes from the Arab word sharbet, which means sweet snow, which in turn comes from the Arabic verb sherber, meaning to sip. This interest in sorbet stems from a super easy recipe I found for lemon sorbet, my favorite, which I'd like to share with you today.
Sorbet, is made with just two ingredients, fruit and sugar, and has been around longer than ice cream. In the days of the Roman Empire, it’s said that the Roman Emperor Nero had a passion for sorbet. He would position his slaves along Rome's Appian Way, from the city to the mountains where snow was collected by the bucketful. The buckets of snow were then passed hand over hand from the mountains to his banquet hall where it was mixed with honey and wine, creating a sweet sorbet.
It sounds a little farfetched to me as it’s a long way from the mountains to the center of Rome, which is very hot in the summer, and unless they could pass those buckets faster than lightening it's highly unlikely the snow would have arrived in any condition to be used for anything edible. But there is mention of putting snow and ice in underground storage rooms so it could be used in the warmer months of the year, so I may be underestimating the creativity, and determination of the Roman Emperors.
Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, sorbet and milk based ice cream were only found in Italy. It wasn’t until after Maria de’ Medici married the future King of France, Henry II, that the French, and the rest of Europe were introduced to sorbet and ice cream.
The Italians also came up with granita, which is sort of like sorbet but different. The difference is in how it is frozen and in the texture you end up with. In the recipe below it says to stir the sorbet with a hand whisk every 10 minutes or so if you are not using an ice cream machine, in order to avoid ice crystals from forming. If you want to make granita instead of sorbet, stir the same mixture with a fork in order to get a more coarse texture – which for granita is the desired consistency.
And then there is water ice or Italian ice which is basically the same thing but with a higher water content which results in a texture somewhere between sorbet and granita. If Italians spoke English instead of Italian this dessert would be called snow cones or shaved ices, which are basically cups of crushed ice topped with a flavored syrup, but since they don’t, every little change, in the texture of frozen water with added flavoring, no matter how inconsequential, gets its own name.
• 2 lb lemons (1 kilo)
• 2 cups water (1/2 liter)
• ½ lb sugar (250 grams)
• 2 egg whites (optional)
Prepare a simple syrup with the water, sugar and thinly-sliced lemon peel, taking care to avoid the white part of the peel as it is very bitter. Boil the water, sugar and lemon peel for 5-6 minutes, then cool completely. Strain the syrup into a bowl, using a thin mesh strainer. Squeeze the lemons, strain the juice and add the strained juice to the simple syrup.
If you have a ice cream maker, add the sorbet base to the machine and run the machine until the sorbet has reached the desired consistency.
If not, put the mixture into a bowl and place it in the freezer for 10 minutes. Then remove the bowl, and use a whisk to break apart the ice crystals. Return to the freezer for 10 minutes and repeat the whisking process every ten minutes to avoid ice crystals forming, until you reach the desired consistency.
If you want a fluffier sorbet, you can add two egg whites, whipped to form stiff peaks, when the mixture begins to solidify. Fold in the egg whites carefully using the whisk from the bottom up.
p.s. This a week of milestones for This Italian Life. The This Italian Life Facebook page reached 500 Likes this week, and this post marks the 500th post for the blog.