- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I know it’s cold, but I can’t help dreaming about better days, better weather — and scoops of gelato.

My first taste of gelato came on a sultry June afternoon on a winding, back street in Rome. Exhausted from a morning of elbowing past tourists at the Trevi Fountain and forging our way through the throngs at the Forum, my husband and I ducked into a storefront bearing the name “gelateria.”

To my inexperienced eyes, the cheery, glass-fronted shop resembled an ice cream parlor. However, instead of round, plastic tubs of ice cream, small metal troughs filled with velvety confections lined the chin-high, refrigerated cases.

I pointed at a container of pale green pistachio gelato, a standard flavor in Italy. Seconds later, I held in my hand a small cup of the cool treat. One quick bite and I was hooked. I turned to my husband and naively announced that this heavenly delight reminded me of ice cream. Of course it did. Derived from the Italian verb for “freeze,” gelato is to Italians what ice cream is to Americans: a cold, milk-based sweet.

While I initially wrote the two off as twins, I soon learned that gelato and ice cream more resemble distant cousins. Richer and denser, gelato contains less air — under 35 percent — than its iced relation. Stored at a warmer temperature in a semifrozen state, it also possesses a smoother, creamier texture and does not numb the palate as frozen ice cream often does. With gelato, the flavor lingers longer and is stronger.

Heavy in flavor does not mean high in fat. Made with whole milk, gelato has 4 to 8 percent butterfat and employs heavy cream as a thickener, not as a main ingredient. Ice cream, with its cream base, varies from 10 to 18 percent butterfat.

Although I first sampled it in 20th-century Rome, gelato’s origins date to 16th-century Florence and the Medici. Introduced to the Florentines by architect Bernardo Buontalenti, gelato shows no signs of losing its grip on modern-day diners’ taste buds.

When Italians eat gelato, it varies from region to region and, to some extent, season to season. For Adriana Barsotti-Kaplan, who spent the first 21 years of her life in Padova — the walled city between Venice and Verona — eating gelato was, and remains, a summertime ritual. She now lives in Alexandria.

“At the end of a long, hot day, there is nothing better than to go downtown or to your neighborhood gelateria and lick a cone,” Miss Barsotti-Kaplan said. In winter, Padova’s gelato shops either close or switch to serving baked goods and strong hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.

In Rome, locals do eat gelato in winter but much less so than in summer. Along the northwest coast in Liguria, the same holds true. However, head south to Sicily in February and expect to wait in long lines at the gelateria.

In the United States, gelato, like ice cream, has become a year-round treat. Restaurants such as New York’s Babbo serve hazelnut and olive oil gelati as an accompaniment to cakes and tortes. Rita’s, the East Coast water ice franchise, layers it into its Italian ices, creating an unusual and delicious sweet.

At Sophie’s Gelato on Magazine Street in New Orleans, owner Geneva Mercadel Tucker makes 16 flavors on the premises.

While the bold Italian chocolate remains the shop’s best seller, other more localized flavors, such as Creole cream cheese and rum raisin, thrill dessert seekers. Commonly dished out in a bowl, gelato also appears in floats, shakes and banana splits.

Best when eaten fresh and made daily, gelato can easily and quickly be created at home. While most recipes call for an ice cream maker, I have literally whipped up a batch using a wire whisk and stainless steel bowl. Whisking by hand does take considerably longer than an ice cream maker — hours rather than minutes — but the results are similar.

Gelato starts with such basic, natural ingredients as sugar and whole milk. Simply stir the two together in a saucepan on medium heat until the sugar dissolves. To add some flavor, sprinkle in fruit, nuts, ground coffee or chocolate. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover and chill for several hours.

When seeking a thicker consistency, I incorporate either heavy whipping cream or egg yolks. Unlike the cream, which would be heated with the milk and sugar, egg yolks are combined with the sugar and then spooned into the warmed milk and flavoring. The concoction cooks over medium heat until it thickens and can coat the back of a spoon. Do not let it boil.

Once combined, cooked and cooled, the ingredients can either be poured into an electric or hand-cranked ice cream maker or placed in an iced, stainless steel bowl and stored in the freezer until ready to blend.

If making by hand, place the mixture-filled bowl in the freezer and leave it there for several hours, until the contents are partially frozen.

Remove the bowl, stir the ingredients until creamy and return the bowl to the freezer. Repeat the process once or twice, until the desired consistency is achieved.

Whether enjoyed in a gelateria, a restaurant or at home, this rich, flavorful Italian delicacy remains the ultimate cool treat. Love at first lick, gelato still has me enthralled, even after all these years.

Coffee gelato

3 cups whole milk

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon instant coffee

Water

Place milk and sugar in a medium saucepan and heat on medium. Stir milk until sugar has dissolved and bubbles have formed around edges. Whisk in instant coffee until granules have dissolved. Remove saucepan from burner and place in an ice cold bowl of water. Stir the pan’s contents until they have cooled, about 5 minutes.

Remove pan from bowl, cover and chill for at least 1 hour. Once chilled, follow manufacturer’s directions for ice cream maker or place ingredients in a stainless steel bowl in the freezer. When the gelato appears partially frozen, remove from freezer, whisk until smooth, then return it to freezer. Repeat as necessary until desired consistency is achieved. Makes 4 servings.

Chocolate hazelnut gelato

½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and finely chopped

2 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 cup cocoa powder, measured, then sifted to remove lumps

4 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

Chocolate shavings for garnish, optional

Ice water

Place hazelnuts, milk and cream in a saucepan and heat over medium heat until bubbles form around edges but liquid is not boiling.

Slowly add sifted cocoa powder to liquid, stirring until all cocoa has dissolved.

In a separate bowl, whisk together egg yolks and sugar. Add 1 tablespoon of heated cocoa mixture to eggs, stirring to combine, then add 1/4 cup of the warmed cocoa to the eggs, once again stirring to combine. Slowly pour egg-cocoa mix into saucepan.

Continually stirring, heat ingredients on medium until custard thickens and can coat the back of a wooden spoon. Do not let it boil.

Remove saucepan from burner. Using a fine mesh colander or chinois, strain custard into a bowl. Place this bowl in another bowl containing ice water. Stir custard until it has cooled, about 5 minutes.

Cover custard and chill for at least 1 hour.

Once chilled, follow manufacturer’s directions for the ice cream maker or place ingredients in a stainless steel bowl in the freezer. When the gelato appears partially frozen, remove from freezer, whisk until smooth, then return it to freezer. Repeat as necessary until desired consistency is achieved.. Serve sprinkled with chocolate shavings, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

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