A Refreshing Heat Quencher

Nadia Roden has a cool, colorful, delicious solution for the dog days of summer: granita.

What's granita?

That's a question Roden was asked scores of times while putting together her recently published cookbook, (Artisan; $15).

Granita, a classic dessert from Italy, is a grainy ice with intense flavoring that is served as a palate cleanser between courses, a complement to a main dish or most often as a cooling refreshment.

London-born Roden, reached in New York where she now lives, prefers to define granita by what it's not.

"It's not ice cream, because it has no cream," she says. "It's not sorbet, because it has no egg white. And it's not smooth, because it is not churned. Instead, it's like an icy snowflake. And since it contains no dairy product, it has no fat or cholesterol. It's healthy as well as delicious."

Additionally, she notes in response to our questioning, it's not like a snow cone, in which a syrup is poured over crushed ice, or the Italian ices served in East Coast cities, in which a syrup is combined with the ice in its preparation stage.

"A granita uses the actual fruit or other ingredients in highly concentrated form, rather than syrup, and consequently has a much more pronounced flavor. When I serve my orange granita, for example, people often say, 'It tastes more like an orange than an orange does.'"

But the flavoring ingredient is not the only thing that makes granita different from other ices. Another factor, arguably the most important one, is the texture of the ice.

Granita's texture comes from "raking" the ice. You partially freeze it, rake it with a fork, then freeze it a little more and re-rake it, repeating this process several times. "Granita Magic" is the first book for Roden, a textile artist who has created designs for the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Opera, Radio City Music Hall and department stores.

Her mother is Claudia Roden, a highly regarded cookbook author whose (Alfred A. Knopf) was named cookbook of the year in 1997 by the James Beard Foundation.

contains 55 recipes and also showcases Roden's art, mostly fanciful drawings of fruits, vegetables and other ingredients used to make granita.

The idea for came out of research Roden was doing for a book on fruits.

"I was trying to come up with something to go with peaches and I thought of ginger. Then my air conditioner broke down on a really hot, humid day, and I thought of the cool melon granita my mother would make when I was a child to cool me off on hot days and the lemon and coffee granitas I had enjoyed on hot days in Italy and decided I would make a ginger granita."

It turned out better than she thought, so Roden began experimenting with other flavors. "Almost all turned out wonderful," she says, so the book on fruit was put on the back burner.

"I forced my half-Irish, half-Italian boyfriend, Terence De Pietro, to taste every granita I made. If he didn't like it, I didn't put it in the book. But he liked most," Roden says.
Granita goes back to ancient times, when people would add syrup and fruit pulp to snow. Nero, the first-century Roman emperor, popularized the frozen treat, she says.

"What I like about granita is that it's so easy to make and doesn't require any special equipment. All you need is a fork, a tray, a freezer and sometimes a food processor, a sieve and a saucepan."

While usually served as a dessert, granita can be made with vegetables, spices or spirits to be enjoyed before and during a meal as well as afterward. Roden even has one made with horseradish, which she says goes great with oysters.

The artist-author believes granita should be enjoyed year-round.

"Of course, warm weather is prime time for granitas, but they're very good in winter, too. After a heavy meal or in between courses, they're terrific for lightening things up."