I was in Sorrento, Italy, the very first time I had gelato. It had been hot that day ~ beastly, brutally hot ~ and even now, at twilight, heat still radiated up from the sidewalk, which had baked in the Mediterranean sun all day. My husband and I were taking a walk down the sloping street leading away from our hotel. The faintest whisper of a cooling breeze was starting to come in off the water, and it was heavenly.
Farther along, down a street of shops and cafes, we spotted a line of people so long that it snaked around the corner and out of sight. The group was too diverse to be waiting outside a nightclub. Smartly dressed seniors mingled with jeans-clad teens; snuggling couples waited alongside jostling families.
Curious, we walked closer. Ah. It was a gelateria, and it was packed. This being the early 1990s, when gelato was just starting to make inroads into the American dessert scene, we took our places at the back of the line, expecting to find the Italian equivalent of hand-dipped ice cream.
We were right, and wrong. The gelato we ate that night was similar in many ways to the ice cream we were familiar with. As expected, it was sweet, creamy, and blessedly frozen. One big difference, however, was the portion size. In New York, or anywhere in Dairy Country, USA, you can order your hard ice cream in scoops that are designated "small," "medium," or "large." But everyone knows these are just the polite terms for the real sizes: "baseball," "softball," and "tetherball."
In Sorrento, the gelato scoops balanced delicately atop our improbably narrow cones were the size of golf balls. I would be lying if I said that the first thought that flung itself into my mind wasn't something akin to "The sample spoonfuls at Baskin Robbins are bigger than this!" But oh, the flavor! Amaretto, kiwi, pineapple, espresso. So intense! So true. This was more like sorbet than ice cream. I’m a big supporter of chunks in my ice cream, but this smooth, perfect gelato was so absolutely authentic in its essential flavor that I barely missed my peanut-butter cups and toffee bar crumbles. And no clunky chocolate chips, either ~ this gelato was flecked with rich dark-chocolate stracciatella. And it rocked.
I have never forgotten that gelato, and now that I make my own, I use it as the benchmark for what I want to achieve with my frozen desserts. Yes, I do love a chunky and complicated mix of nuts and candy and sweet heavy cream. But as my tastes become gradually more refined, I'm striving to combine my New York State sensibility with my appreciation for the finer nuances of the elegant Italian-style gelato. How? Bigger bowls.
Fresh Strawberry Gelato
~ Adapted from the May 2009 issue of Bon Appétit, p. 115
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 cup whole milk
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 2 1/4 cups sliced ripe strawberries, cleaned and hulled
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate juice (I used Pom)
- Prepare an ice bath by filling a large stainless-steel mixing bowl with halfway with ice and adding water. Place a clean, dry stainless steel bowl into the bowl filled with ice. Set aside.
- Combine sugar and cornstarch in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan, stirring to combine. Whisk in milk, then cream. Place saucepan over medium heat and whisk continuously until the cream mixture bubbles and begins to thicken ~ about 5 to 8 minutes. Pour the gelato base into the bowl resting atop the ice bath; stir the mixture occasionally so that it cools evenly.
- Puree the strawberries in a blender or food processor. If desired, pour through strainer into gelato base. (I didn't strain my mix; strawberry seeds are tiny and I don't object to them.) Add pomegranate juice and stir to combine. Remove from water bath, dry bottom of bowl, cover and chill until the gelato base is completely cold, about 3 hours.
- When the base is thoroughly chilled, process in ice cream machine according to manufacturer's directions. Transfer to a chilled container with a tightly fitting lid. Freeze, covered, for at least 3 hours prior to serving. Let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes to soften slightly before scooping.
Makes about 1 quart.
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