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11 icy delights to satisfy your sweet tooth on hot days

Iced sweets such as ice cream, sherbets, granitas, snow cones, frozen drinks and the like have been around a long time, since at least 4000 B.C.

Nobles along the Euphrates River in western Asia built icehouses to make them. These were usually pits or caves where, during the winter, ice and snow would be taken and insulated with straw or sawdust so it could stay frozen for many months, even until the following winter.

Evidence indicates that snow, in addition to cooling wine, likely was sold in the streets of Athens in the fifth century B.C. to make something akin to our snow cones today. Archaeologists have found remains of ice pits in China from the seventh century B.C., but there is also written evidence that the Chinese used them before 1100 B.C. We owe much to the Chinese!

As early as the 13th century, the Arabs discovered that ice mixed with salt or saltpeter set in motion what is called an exothermic reaction. This created a heat-sucking slurry with a far lower freezing point than typical water. Immersed in a bath of this exothermic brine, ice crystals easily formed in various liquid concoctions. Stirred regularly to prevent large ice crystals from forming, a scoopable frozen foam resulted. Water ices, sherbets and granitas were born. The first European water ices and dairy-based ice creams were likely made in Italy during the early 1600s.

By the late 19th century, America was a hotbed of ice cream innovation. A Philadelphia pharmacist mixed the first ice cream soda in 1874. The ice cream sundae dates to 1881 (several Midwestern towns claim to be the site of its invention). Its name likely comes from “blue laws” that banned the sale of soda drinks on Sundays.

The first edible ice cream cups were patented in the 1880s, around the time milkshakes — originally promoted as a health drink — became popular. The waffle cone rocketed to fame when introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and the Popsicle was patented in 1923. Both Dairy Queen and the Carvel company claim to have developed the first soft-serve ice cream in the mid-1930s, while frozen yogurt was a latecomer, introduced in the 1970s.

A granita primer

Anyone who has traveled in Italy, especially in summer, will remember all the terrific frozen confections that are available there. Creamy gooey gelatos, rich semifreddos and slushy granitas!

The word granita comes from the Italian “grano,” meaning kernel or grain. Granitas were first sold from vending carts in village squares in the early to mid-1800s in Italy. Initially, the coffee or fruit juice mixtures were partially frozen in a copper cylinder similar to a modern ice cream maker. Each mixture was then transferred to a container in the cart, and it’s thought that the pebble-like texture was created by the jolting motion of the carts moving over cobblestone roads.

Whatever the source, they are easy to make and wonderfully refreshing on a hot day. Here are some of my favorites. Traditionally, granitas are made by repeatedly stirring and scraping the mixture as it freezes and hardens. It’s easy to do but does require some attention. I find that using the food processor method described below is perfectly acceptable. You can also make granita-like concoctions in your ice cream freezer.

Espresso Granita

Makes about 1 quart, serving 6 - 8

¾ cup water

⅔ cup sugar

2 ¾ cups strongly brewed espresso coffee

2 tablespoons dark rum or orange liqueur

Lightly whipped, barely sweetened heavy cream and dark chocolate shavings, if desired, for garnish

Place water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil to dissolve sugar. Add coffee and rum and remove from heat. Transfer mixture to a nonreactive bowl or pan and place in freezer. After 30 minutes or so as mixture begins to freeze, stir ice from around edges of container into syrup. Every 30 minutes or so, continue to stir to incorporate frozen portion back into syrup. As mixture freezes, it will have a slushy appearance. As it becomes more solid, scrape a fork across the granita to break it up. Repeat scraping every 30 minutes until the mixture is solid, about 4 hours.

Alternately, you can stir every 30 minutes until granita reaches slushy stage. Let it freeze solid at this point and then remove, chop into small pieces and pulse in a food processor until granita texture is achieved. Return to freezer for 30 minutes or so before serving.

To serve: Scoop granita into chilled glasses and top with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, if desired. Serve immediately.

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Any favorite real or herb tea will work here. For something unusual, try a smoky tea such as Lapsang souchong.

Lemon Tea Granita

Serves 4 - 6

2 ½ cups strong brewed tea

⅔ cup sugar

½ cup fresh lemon juice

½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Garnish: Candied lemon zest (recipe follows)

Bring tea, sugar and lemon juice to a boil in a nonreactive saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add zest and transfer to a nonreactive bowl or pan and follow directions for Espresso Granita above.

Candied Lemon Zest

Lemon zest from 2 large lemons, cut into julienne strips

1 cup sugar plus additional for rolling cooked zest

⅓ cup light corn syrup

½ cup dry white wine

Add lemon zest to a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Add sugar, corn syrup and wine to pan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in drained zest. Let stand for 1 hour. Drain again (reserving syrup for other uses) and transfer zest in a single layer to a wire rack. After an hour or so, as zest begins to dry, roll in additional sugar. Store in airtight container in freezer for up to a month.

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Ice creams

The best ice creams are those made from an egg-custard base. They are less likely to become icy and grainy.

You can substitute a couple teaspoons of vanilla extract for the bean, but the flavor is not as interesting, in my opinion. If using extract, stir it into the chilled custard base just before churning. What we are making here is classic French custard ice cream.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Makes 1 quart or so

1 ½ cups whole milk

1 ½ cups heavy cream

¾ cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scrapped out

4 large egg yolks

Position a strainer over a medium bowl set in a larger bowl of ice water. This is the “insurance policy” to help quickly cool the custard mixture to prevent it from scrambling.

In a deep saucepan, heat the milk, cream, ½ cup of the sugar and the vanilla bean and seeds over medium heat until the mixture is warm (185 degrees or so). In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining sugar until pale yellow.

Slowly whisk the warm milk mixture into the egg yolks until combined. This is called “tempering,” which is bringing the egg yolks up to temperature slowly, again to help prevent scrambling.

Return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook it over medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula until the mixture begins to thicken and steam appears. The temperature should read about 185 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Be careful not to boil the mixture or the eggs will scramble. Immediately strain the custard into the bowl set in the ice bath, stirring occasionally to help it cool. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled.

Remove and discard the vanilla bean and churn in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions until firm. Transfer to an airtight container, press plastic wrap flush against the surface, cover the container and freeze for up to three days.

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Yes, you can do it. The recipe below is an adaptation from the popular Serious Eats website and J. Kenji López-Alt.

Vanilla Ice Cream without a Machine

8 large egg yolks

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk

2 cups heavy cream

In large bowl or stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whisk egg yolks, sugar, vanilla and salt until pale yellow and mixture falls off whisk in thick ribbons, about 5 minutes. Set aside. Heat evaporated milk in medium saucepan on stovetop until it comes to a simmer. Slowly add hot milk to egg mixture, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula until fully incorporated. Transfer mixture back to saucepan and heat, stirring constantly with the spatula until it thickens (about 180 degrees). Do not overheat or eggs will scramble. Chill mixture completely.

Whip 1 cup heavy cream with whisk or electric or stand mixer until doubled in volume. Add whipped cream to egg mixture and fold in just until no lumps remain. Pour mixture into ice cube trays and freeze for 4 hours or until solid.

Combine frozen cubes of ice cream (use a spoon or dull knife to remove them) and remaining heavy cream in food processor and process until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping down sides and breaking up lumps as necessary during process. Transfer mixture to quart container and freeze for at least 4 more hours before serving.

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Everyone needs a chocolate sauce to drizzle on vanilla ice cream!

Warm Dark Chocolate Sauce

Makes about 1 cup

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

⅓ cup strong brewed coffee

½ cup packed dark brown sugar

½ cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder

Big pinch salt

½ teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons dark rum or orange liqueur (optional)

Cut butter into pieces.

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, add coffee with brown sugar, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Add cocoa powder and salt and whisk until smooth. Add butter, vanilla and rum, if using, and whisk until butter is melted. Serve warm.

Sauce will keep covered and refrigerated for at least a week.

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This may sound a little strange, but it’s quite delicious. The recipe requires tender, fresh sweet corn. Frozen or canned just don’t cut it. To extract even more flavor, run the point of the knife down the center of each row of kernels to release the milk and then scrape the cobs well to extract every bit of the sweet corn milk. I’ve included an optional addition of fresh chile with this recipe. You also can try the ice cream with a little toasted curry powder or ground ginger in place of the chile.

Fresh Corn Ice Cream

Makes about 1 quart

3 cups fresh sweet corn scraped from cob, cobs reserved and broken into 3-inch lengths

4 cups half and half

1 3-inch vanilla bean

8 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons fragrant honey

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

½ teaspoon seeded and finely minced serrano chile (optional)

Mint sprigs

Combine corn and 1 cup half and half in a blender or food processor and process in short bursts to finely chop corn. Add corn mixture to a saucepan along with remaining cream, corncobs and vanilla bean. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat.

While corn mixture is heating, beat together the egg yolks, sugar, honey, zest and chile in a bowl until well combined. Remove and discard cobs from corn-cream mixture and strain, pressing down on solids. Whisk into egg yolk mixture in a slow steady stream. Remove vanilla bean, split it and scrape seeds into mixture. (Rinse vanilla bean and use to flavor sugar, if desired.)

Return mixture to pan and cook custard over low heat, stirring constantly, until it just begins to thicken (approximately 180 degrees). Be careful not to boil or eggs will curdle. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, chill and then freeze in an ice cream freezer according to manufacturer’s directions.

Serve garnished with mint sprigs.

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Any berry could be used here. You might want to strain berries with big seeds like blackberries or boysenberries, but I don’t because I like the texture. There’s no need to strain with strawberries or raspberries. This is adapted from a recipe from SRJC Culinary Director Shelly Kaldunski.

Berry Ice Cream

Makes 1 ½ quarts

3 cups berries, hulled and cut in half

⅔ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup half and half

3 large egg yolks

Pinch of salt

Toss the berries with 2 tablespoons sugar and the lemon juice. Gently crush them with a fork and let stand for about 1 hour.

Combine the cream and half and half in a heavy saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 4 minutes. Separately, in a heatproof bowl, combine the egg yolks, remaining ⅔ cup sugar and the salt. Whisk vigorously for a couple of minutes until mixture lightens in color and doubles in volume.

Remove the cream mixture from the heat. Slowly pour into the egg mixture, whisking until smooth. Pour this mixture back into the saucepan and, with a heatproof rubber spatula, stir until it forms a custard thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 2 minutes. Be sure not to let it boil or you will scramble the eggs.

Set up an ice bath in a large bowl and nest a smaller bowl inside. Pour custard through a medium mesh strainer into the smaller bowl, stirring occasionally until cool. Remove bowl from the ice bath, stir in the berry mixture and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until very cold, at least 3 hours.

Pour the cold custard into an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s directions. Spoon ice cream into a freezer-safe container and place parchment or wax paper directly on the surface. Cover tightly and freeze until firm, at least 2 hours.

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Sorbets and ices

Sorbets and ices are frozen desserts made from sugar-sweetened water with flavorings, typically fruit juice, fruit puree, wine, liqueur or honey. Generally sorbets do not contain dairy ingredients, while sherbets do. They typically are smoother than granitas.

I’ve included the recipe for this simple sorbet below. Use whatever fresh fruits and berries are best in the season to garnish. Certainly include a tropical fruit or two such as mango and pineapple. Lychee is an Asian fruit with a distinctive flavor. You usually see lychee canned in syrup, but in the summer you can find it fresh in Asian markets. Also look for its hairy cousin, rambutan.

Lychee Sorbet with Fresh Fruits

Serves 4

1 can (15 ounces) lychees in syrup

½ tablespoon unflavored gelatin

½ cup sugar

¼ cup water

1 tablespoon finely grated lime or lemon zest

Fresh fruits of your choice, attractively cut

Drain off ½ cup of the lychee syrup, reserving the rest, and transfer to a small bowl. Spoon gelatin over syrup; set aside for a couple of minutes for gelatin to soften.

Meanwhile, heat the sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves; remove from heat. Whisk in the gelatin mixture and set aside.

Put lychees and reserved syrup in blender or food processor (remove seeds if they are still in the fruit) and puree. Add gelatin mixture and zest and process for 15 seconds or so or until very smooth. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Alternately, pour into shallow container; freeze 24 hours, stirring often to keep crystals from forming. Serve with fresh fruits of your choice.

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This is a nice foil for fresh tropical fruits like pineapple and mango. My other favorite use is to scoop small balls into a martini glass and then splash over a little vodka for a delicious version of the classic Cosmopolitan cocktail.

Cranberry Sorbet

Makes about 1 quart

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

1 ½ pounds (5 cups) fresh or frozen cranberries

½ cup fresh lime juice (or to taste)

2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur such as Grand Marnier (see note below)

Add sugar and water to a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add cranberries and simmer covered until berries have burst, about 10 minutes.

Strain mixture through a medium mesh strainer, pressing down gently on solids to extract the juices. Discard solids and chill the mixture, covered, for at least 2 hours. Stir in the lime juice and liqueur and freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden.

Note: If you prefer a nonalcoholic version, you can use one of the orange-flavored syrups that are widely available and used to flavor coffees.

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You can make the finished product more sorbet-like by adding a lightly whipped (until frothy) egg white along with other ingredients to the ice cream freezer. The wine choice is up to you, but I’d go for a white wine for light-colored fruits like peaches, melons and apples and a red wine for dark fruits like blueberries and blackberries. Do experiment! A pinch of ground cinnamon or clove is also a nice addition with most fruits.

Wine and Fresh Fruit Ice

Makes about 1 quart

1 ¼ cups red or white wine

¾ cup sugar (or to taste)

2 cups pureed unsweetened fresh fruit (strained, if desired)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)

Attractively cut fresh fruits for garnish

Add wine and sugar to a small saucepan and cook over moderate heat to dissolve sugar. Stir hot syrup into fruit and add lemon juice and rum, if using. Chill in refrigerator or over a bowl of ice until very cold. Freeze in an ice cream freezer according to manufacturer’s directions. Serve with beautifully presented fresh fruits.

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A variation on the theme of ices and worth a special mention is shaved ice, or “shave ice” as it’s called in Hawaii. It is thought to have originated in Japan in the 1860s, where it’s called kakigori. It came to Hawaii with Japanese plantation workers and quickly became part of Hawaiian food culture. It is often served over ice cream and topped with flavored syrups. For the fluffiest ice, use a shave-ice machine (about $35 from amazon.com). You can use a food processor to shave your ice from ice cubes, but it will be clumpier.

For Shave Ice: There are many commercial syrups available, but it’s better to make your own. Basically it’s a simple syrup with fruit (especially berries and melons) that is pureed and strained. I use the ratio of 1 ½ cups chopped fruit to ⅔ cup sugar and 2 teaspoons lemon juice. Add fruit, sugar and lemon to a blender and blend until smooth. Adjust sweet and sour levels to your own taste. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, cover and refrigerate, covered, for up to one week. Freeze for up to two months.

To garnish: Vanilla ice cream, sweetened condensed milk, toasted coconut flakes.

Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to each serving dish or cup. Top with Shave Ice, then drizzle with syrup or syrups plus a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. Sprinkle with coconut flakes.

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Semifreddo

Semifreddo in Italian translates to “half-frozen.” If you are concerned about using raw egg yolks, you could whisk the yolks and sugar with ½ cup or so of dry white wine in a double boiler over simmering water until light, fluffy and cooked before folding in the whipped cream. It melts relatively quickly, so plate it just before you plan to serve it, preferably on plates you’ve put in the freezer for at least 15 minutes.

This is a lovely dessert which could be made in the terrine as suggested here or in individual serving-size molds if you like. Add-ins are up to you, but this sauce is a favorite.

Ginger and Cranberry Semifreddo with Blackberry Sauce

Makes 8 - 10 servings

2 ¾ cups heavy whipping cream

8 egg yolks

⅔ cup sugar

⅓ cup finely chopped candied ginger

⅓ cup dried finely chopped cranberries or tart cherries

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

Blackberry Sauce (recipe follows)

Mint sprigs, for garnish

With an electric mixer, beat cream until stiff peaks form and set aside. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks until light in color. Gradually beat in sugar and continue beating for 3 to 4 minutes until light and fluffy. Gently fold the egg and cream mixture together along with rest of the ingredients through the zest.

Line a 7- 8-cup terrine with plastic wrap and fill with mixture. Cover top with plastic and freeze for 6 hours or overnight.

To serve: Unmold, cut into slices and surround with fresh blackberry sauce and mint sprigs.

Blackberry Sauce

Makes about 5 cups

4 cups fresh or IQF (Individual Quick Freezing) blackberries

¾ cup sugar (or to taste)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons blackberry brandy (optional)

Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and puree. Push through a fine strainer to remove seeds. Store refrigerated up to five days.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of KSRO’s “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com.

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