Summer Ices

I HAD TO STOP everything when I took my first bite of gelato, the Italian version of ice cream. Although I was in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence, and surrounded by some of the most famous sculptures in the world, I could concentrate only on what tasted like the biggest, ripest, most richly flavored peach imaginable. It made the ice creams I had had before seem chalky. Each flavor I went back to try—apricot, blueberry, fig, melon—also seemed like the apotheosis of the fruit. The lemon and grapefruit were almost overwhelming in intensity. Why didn’t I know about this? I wondered. Why hadn’t anyone opened a gelaterta in America? I decided that I had found my way to get rich quick.

Naturally, I waited too long. The icecream craze that has made Häagen-Dazs and other rich ice creams so popular is being joined by a gelato craze. Gelato as a rule has half the butterfat of ice cream but is more powerfully flavored. The first in the new wave of American gelaterie, a store called Gelato, opened in San Francisco in 1976 and now has twenty-one branches. Gelaterie are common all over California, and new ones have opened recently in New York, Boston, and Chicago, and in Texas, Arizona, Michigan, Colorado, and Florida, among other states. Several brands of gelato are being distributed to supermarkets. But almost no one is making the kind of fruit gelati I dreamed of tasting again. I recently found out why.

Although anything sold in a gelaterta is called gelato, the term covers two ice creams and two water ices. The most popular is gelato itself, made with egg yolks and milk or cream. (American ice cream sometimes uses egg yolks and generally uses cream.) Flavors are typically chocolate; gianduia, or chocolate with hazelnut; and crenta, which corresponds most closely to vanilla. Semifreddi have a lighter texture and are made classically of whipped cream but often with pastry cream or meringue added, in flavors such as zabaione (egg yolks and marsala) and chocolate chip. Sorbetti—the fruit ices I fell in love with—are made with roughly equal proportions of pureed fruit, usually uncooked, and a syrup of sugar and water, usually cooked, as the syrup in a French sorbet is. (The translation should be “sherbet,” but in America sherbets are high in sugar, low in fruit, and use milk.) Granite have the texture of chipped ice. They resemble Sno-Kones, except that the chips of ice are bigger and the flavors, usually lemon and coffee, are not artificial.

The way to make a really good fruit ice is to use a lot of fresh fruit. Almost no one does this. Instead, manufacturers add a lot of sugar, which enhances the flavor of the small amount of fruit they use. Many commercial sorbetti use gums as a stabilizer, to prevent too many ice crystals from forming—the function of the cream in ice cream, the egg yolk in gelato, and the sugar in sorbetti. Manufacturers can’t avoid using gums; a pure mixture of fresh fruit, water, and a small amount of sugar won’t keep its flavor and texture longer than a day. Most of the new gelato stores in America use imported bottled bases made up of syrup, some pureed fruit, and gums. Even Vivoli, the most famous gelateria in Florence, admits to using some of these bases.

It’s no wonder that the number of sorbetti available either in gelaterie or in supermarkets is very small, and that most rely principally on sugar and on stabilizers for flavor and texture. Buying, peeling, and chopping the quantities of fresh fruit required to produce a good sorbetto is expensive and time-consuming. Each fruit needs to be frozen in a different way, depending on its sugar and water content. For instance, strawberries are high in water, bananas low. The fiber and enzymes in papayas make them difficult to freeze. Other fruits, such as cantaloupe and honeydew, are so delicate that their flavors can disappear once a syrup is added. American apricots are usually so tasteless that it is better to use dried ones, which requires other recipe adjustments. Most restaurants and manufacturers can’t be bothered with mastering the fine points of such a temperamental product—especially one that should properly be thrown out if it’s not eaten the day it is made.

THE BEST WAY to have a delicious fruit ice, then, is to make your own. You don’t need a special machine, and the effort required makes more sense than that for homemade ice cream: you can buy good ice cream. Perhaps the chief problem in trying to duplicate Italian sorbetti is that Italian fruit has much more flavor than American fruit and is riper when picked. It is safest to choose ripe fruit that is in season. Although some fruits, like apples and cranberries, need cooking, most cooked fruits will make the sorbetti taste like jam. You can make up for lack of flavor by adding a tablespoon or so of liquor to a quart of liquid—rum and banana, cassis and lemon, and Poire William and pear are classic combinations.

A homemade sorbetto uses a sugar syrup, which is one part sugar and one part water boiled together for five minutes and then cooled. Two parts fruit puree or juice are added to the syrup, and the mixture is frozen. You can freeze the mixture in an ice-cream maker, which continuously beats air into it as it freezes, but you’re almost as well off putting it into an ice tray with the dividers removed or into a cake pan, and transferring it to a chilled bowl to beat it twice—after it turns to slush and before it freezes completely. The whole freezing process takes between three and five hours. After the sorbetto is frozen hard, you should put it in the refrigerator for an hour or so to temper it before serving.

Although the sugar produces a pleasing consistency and prevents a sorbetto from freezing to a solid block of ice, it has a distinctive taste that often masks the taste of the fruit. I sing half syrup and half fruit, as a sorbetto requires, can make for a dessert that is too sweet for many people’s taste, even if you add the juice of one or two lemons to point up the flavor of the fruit and cut the sweetness—a good trick. Fructose, powdered fruit sugar, is one and a half times as strong as white sugar and does not have a taste of its own. You can make a cooked syrup with fructose or add enough to the fruit puree to sweeten it. Any sorbetto mixture should taste too sweet and too strong before you freeze it, since freezing diminishes flavor.

If you stir in fructose to your liking rather than make a cooked syrup, the result will be a cross between a granita and a sorbetto. You must add a stabilizer in order to avoid chunky ice crystals and achieve the desired consistency of densely packed snow. A small amount of gelatin is one choice: two teaspoons, dissolved in a quarter cup of hot water and then cooled, is enough for a quart of liquid. Many people dislike the taste of even so little, however. Another possible stabilizer is one or two beaten egg whites, although some people say that thev make a sorbetto taste like a frozen meringue. But either gelatin or egg white is required for making low-sugar fruit ices at home. You should beat the mixture twice too. If you don’t have an electric mixer, use a whisk. You can also use a food processor, which will break down the ice crystals although it will not incorporate air into the sorbetto.

Although it is best to arrive at your own final recipe for each kind of fruit ice, there are good basic recipes for sorbets in many cookbooks—for example,

The Joy of Cooking and Volume II of. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The best of the recipe books I have tried is The Book of Ices, which w as written in London in 1885 by Mrs. A. B. Marshall, a cooking teacher and entrepreneur, and has been annotated for modern readers by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. It has recipes for a good variety of water ices with fruit and for ices based on custard or plain cream. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, has recently re-issued the small book in an edition charmingly illustrated with period photographs and engravings and retitled Victorian Ires & lee Cream. Giuliano Bugialli claims in his Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking that the best Italian fruit ices actually begin with the same custard base used in gelati, and he gives a recipe for fruit gelati. It requires an ice-cream machine, and has all the cholesterol that sorbetto lovers are proud of avoiding.

The quality of the sorbetti I’ve tasted at some of the new gelaterie in New York and the Boston area has been depressinglv low. I have found a few exceptions, stores whose owners are intent on using only fresh ingredients. Giuseppe Dietrich, an Italian, makes sorbetti at his Gelateria Giuseppe, at Harvard Square, in Cambridge, that have the right creamy consistency. Kenneth Horn, a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer who went to Italy to learn to makc gelati, makes the real thing at his Gran Gelato, in New York City. The two chefs who own New York Ice, in Greenwich Village—Shipen Lebzelter and Guido Magnaguagno— make subtle fruit granite sweetened with fructose. The flavors are clear and powerful, and the chefs are inventive: grapefruit and Campari, for instance, is especially good. Gelateria Giuseppe might offer franchises, and New York Ice is expanding its distribution. But in the meantime, try making your own before fall, while you can find the greatest variety of fresh fruits. The best fruit ice you ever taste might be your own inv ention.