Light, elegant and refreshing, granita is a simple shaved ice dessert that’s perfect for cooling off on a hot summer’s day. Made from crunchy ice flavoured with fruit, it has a fresher, cleaner mouthfeel than ice cream, and a coarser, lighter texture than sorbet. It is often served as a palate cleanser between courses, and also works well as a deliciously cool summer dessert. In its native Sicily, it is served with brioche for breakfast.
Granita is low fat and dairy-free, and it comes in a range of delicious flavours. Originally from Sicily, traditional granita flavours are based on popular Sicilian ingredients, and include lemon juice, mandarin oranges, jasmine, coffee, almonds, mint, and pistachio. It is possible to make granita using almost any fruit, however, and you can even add alcohol to make a delicious icy cocktail.
How granita was born
In Sicily, granita is not just a cool, sweet treat. It’s a part of the culture. It is eaten as part of a traditional Sicilian breakfast, particularly in the summer months, sometimes topped with whipped cream and always accompanied by a Sicilian brioche, or brioscia, which is topped with an extra ball of pastry called a tuppo to represent the traditional low bun that Sicilian women used to wear.
Although granita and brioche is traditionally a breakfast dish, it is increasingly eaten at any time of day, sometimes as part of a meal. Different Sicilian towns specialise in different flavours and textures of granita, and there many competing claims as to who first invented it.
In the Middle Ages, men called nevarolu made a living by collecting snow from the lofty peak of Mount Etna in the winter, and selling it as an icy treat during the hot Sicilian summers. The snow was stored in caves on the mountainside to prevent it from melting, then packed in jute bags, covered in ferns and straw and carried down the mountain on carts or mules.
When the island came under Arab rule in the 8th century, new ingredients like lemons and sugarcane were introduced to Sicily, and people began adding these to their Mount Etna snow, along with honey, herbs and spices.
Much later, in the 16th century, enterprising locals began using an early refrigeration device called a pozzetto, made from a wooden vat with a zinc bucket inside. Water, fruit juice and honey or sugar were added to the bucket, while snow and sea salt were packed into the space between the wooden vat and the bucket, freezing the mixture inside. Eventually, hand-operated blades were added to churn up the ice and stop large ice crystals forming, which lead to that crunchy, melt-in-mouth granita texture we know today.
With modern technology, the pozzetto has become a fridge, and the hand operated blades have been replaced by a humble fork used to break up the ice, or an ice cream machine for larger batches. These days, granita is enjoyed all over the world, with a wider variety of flavours than ever before.
Classic ingredients for granita
Classic Sicilian granita is made from ingredients that abound on the island – lemons, oranges, almonds, mint and pistachios are the most common. Wild strawberries are used when in season. There are also some regional versions, such as indulgent chocolate granita from the city of Catania.
Classic preparation for granita
Most granitas are made using three simple ingredients - fruit, liquid and sugar. Whatever fruits, juices or wines you choose, you can make almost any granita according to the same basic recipe.
First, you need to get the correct ratio of fruit to liquid and sugar. This should be roughly 4 cups of diced fruit to ¼ cup of liquid and ¼ cup sugar. You may need to adjust slightly for certain ingredients - for example, a very sweet fruit may require less sugar, and a very juicy fruit may require less liquid.
It’s also important to try and balance the flavours when choosing your liquid, so your granita isn’t too sweet or too sour. Choose something with a bit of acidity, to balance the sweetness of the fruit. Lemon and lime juice are traditional, but you can also try dry wine, liquor or kombucha.
To make the granita, add the ingredients to a food processor, and purée until the mixture is roughly the consistency of a smoothie, then pour it into a shallow pan and put it straight in the freezer.
Leave the mixture in the freezer for around 30 to 45 minutes, until it has just begun to freeze around the edges. Take a fork and scrape it across the ice to break up any large chunks, then return the pan to the freezer. Repeat this step 2 or 3 times until your granita is loosely frozen, with a flaky consistency. If you’re making it a few days ahead, be sure to give the ice a final scrape with your fork prior to serving.
How is granita served?
For obvious reasons, granita should be served to be consumed immediately, particularly on a hot day! It is usually presented in a chilled glass, garnished with fruit, herbs and even whipped cream as a special treat.
Homemade granita recipes
A true classic, lemon is the perfect choice for a fresh, zingy granita. Simply made, with lemons, sugar and water, this is granita at its traditional best. If you can find them, use Sicilian lemons for an authentic, slightly sweet lemon flavour.
Sweet, juicy strawberries make a wonderfully summery and cheerful granita. We love this version from All Recipes, which balances the sweetness of the strawberries with lemon juice and balsamic vinegar for a more grown up flavour.
A wickedly boozy take on the classic citrus granita, this fun, frozen cocktail is bursting with zesty lime and a generous hit of vodka. Great for sharing with friends at summer barbecues and pool parties.
Orange granita with white coffee cream
A refreshing granita pairs beautifully with whipped cream, and the two are often served together in Sicily. This recipe matches a sweet, boozy granita, made with orange, Grand Marnier and vanilla, with a whipped, coffee-infused cream for a simple, flavourful dessert.
Coffee is another classic granita flavour. Our version is flavoured with freshly-brewed espresso and vanilla, topped with espresso-flavoured whipped cream, and served with amaretti biscuits.