At last, cherry season is here and they’re ripe for the taking. It had become a weekly ritual to enter Wegman’s, look for the cherries, and be disappointed, but now brilliant Bing, golden Rainier and tart Morello cherries are all to be found. So far, I’ve made clafoutis, a giant French pancake studded with fruit, and sparkling sangria with Spanish cava wine, but I think it was the sparkling cherry granita that made for the most interesting presentation. A boozy, effervescent slushie for adults, this elegant dessert helps you cool down with tiny fireworks of cherry flavor.
Granita is a Sicilian creation of frozen water, sugar, and flavorings, usually fruit and liqueurs. Sugar and alcohol act as a natural anti-freeze, helping to keep the solution from freezing solid, assisted by infrequent scrapings with a fork to break ice crystals down. As compared to the constant churning used for Italian ice, sorbet and ice cream, this results in a choppier, more granular texture, with larger ice crystals. Larger, icier chunks may not sound like a desirable trait, but it gives each spoonful a little more bite and body to showcase flavors and play across the tongue. Traditional presentations may include either hot coffee or sweet brioche to serve as contrasting counterpoints.
Culinarily speaking, Italy marks the historical capital of frozen desserts, giving us granita, sorbet and gelato. This heritage is owed to the convenient wealth of Mediterranean ports and the Ancient Roman Empire’s penchant for conquering nearby peoples and taking their things. The Persian Empire was combining juice and snow into icy treats circa 400 BCE and soon the Roman Emperor Nero was rumored to have runners carrying buckets of snow from the mountains to his kitchen for similar preparations. Marco Polo enjoyed sorbet-like delicacies in his travels to China in the late 13th Century, where the Chinese developed the first ice cream machines, and Catherine d’Medici is credited with helping to share the popularity of flavored ices when she married King Henry II of France (then the Duke of Orleans) in 1533 and brought a host of her own Italian chefs with her.
Refreshing in texture and flavor, the preparation of granita is also something of a joy, as it frees the chef from the requirements of the more specialized equipment used for making ice cream at home. If you have a dish, a fork, and a freezer, granita can be yours. The ingredients are simply whisked together and chilled, with the occasional scraping to keep things light and ice crystals in check. With honey for sweetness and the shimmering bubbles of your favorite sparkling wine, it makes for an easy crowd pleaser scooped into martini glasses. Serve as a cooling dessert, a quick treat while lounging by the pool, or as a palate cleanser between courses.
Sparkling Cherry Granita
I originally tried to adapt this recipe from Martha Stewart Living’s “Cherry Ice,” which claims it can be made in an hour. I don’t know what sort of high tech super-freezer Martha has, but I needed about twice that time before I felt like it was ready to serve. Happily, you can neglect your granita in the freezer for a few hours and it will still come out okay.
2 1/4 cups fresh cherries, pitted
1/2 cups sparkling wine
1/3 cup raw honey
Fresh juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 tablespoons Kirsch or other cherry liqueur
Tip the cherries into a blender or food processor and pulse into a fine puree.
Combine the remaining ingredients in a shallow glass dish, whisking until homogenized.
Add the pureed cherries to the dish of boozy honey and give another whisk until blended.
Freeze for 2-3 hours, scraping with a fork about every 30 minutes, until slushy and semi-frozen throughout, like a light cherry snow.