Italian ice. Wikipedia keeps telling me that it’s the same as a granita or sorbet, but it’s not. It’s finer than a granita and coarser than a sorbet. It’s a smooth mound of flavored ice crystals that are packed together as tightly as ice cream, with a bright tart taste and a velvety mouthfeel. It’s the thing to eat in the summer when wandering around outside.
Italian ice always makes me think of some strange combination of nostalgia and homesickness. My peak Italian ice consumption is directly liked with zoo visits. Like many other managers of small humans, my parents had a zoo membership for many years to make visiting the zoo a frequent and affordable event. We would always pack our own lunches (see: affordable) but whenever it was hot we would buy frozen treats for snacks. The kids would choose some variety of cartoon shaped popsicles, my dad would get a decadent something with chocolate and nuts, and my mom always chose a stately and demure lemon Italian ice.
What a treat. It was the most refreshing thing I could imagine on a hot day. It was smooth and tart, with just enough sweetness to make the lemon even more pronounced. I started off ordering a strawberry Italian ice once I was old enough to appreciate its charms. Soon enough that strawberry had morphed into a lemon Italian ice. My mom and I would wander around the zoo, both of us scraping at our Italian ices with tiny plastic spoons as we watched peacocks prance about trying to impress peahens. That Italian ice was not as sweet as a Sailor Moon Crescent Moon Wand Popsicle with bubblegum, but it had its own charms.
Like many childhood treats it’s difficult to find as an adult. Italian ice, which was so plentiful in Chicago summers, is uncommon in Minneapolis. The easiest and most efficient solution is to make my own. But when making my own Italian ice, I wanted to add something a bit different. Basil is abundant and cheap from where I stand and so I threw in a large bunch of basil with the lemon juice, lemon, and simple syrup. I loved the green color and the anise-y, herbaceous taste that resulted.
If you’re not feeling basil, this could be an easy template to swap in the classic strawberries. Or you could make an offbeat variation yourself. Tarragon and cherry, perhaps? Lime? Piña colada? There’s still summer enough left for all your Italian ice dreams.
Basil Lemon Italian Ice
adapted from The Chicago Tribune
Makes about 10 scoops
This Italian ice is on the tart side. If you’d like a sweeter Italian ice, you should make and use more simple syrup. Simple syrup is sugar that’s been dissolved into water. It’s used in many cocktails, a handful of desserts, and some upscale coffee bars to add sweetness to cold presses. It’s easy and cheap to make, and scales up or down well. If you like to mix cocktails or add sugar to iced coffee it may be something you’d like to keep on hand. Just be aware that the more sugar you add, the longer the Italian ice will take to freeze.
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 large or 2 small lemons, quartered and with seeds cut out
1/2 cup basil
4 cups (about 24) ice cubes
First, make the simple syrup. In a small pot combine the sugar and the water. Bring to a simmer, and stir while the sugar dissolves. Once the sugar has all melted turn off the heat. Let the simple syrup cool down to room temperature.
In a blender combine 1 cup of simple syrup (you will have a bit left over), the lemon juice, the whole lemon, and the basil. Blend on high until everything is well mixed. Taste, and add more sugar if necessary. What you taste now will be more muted once it’s cold, so if it’s perfectly sweet now you’ll want to add a bit more simple syrup.
Chill, either in the refrigerator or freezer until cold.
Return to the blender and add the ice cubes. Blend until the ice cubes are broken down smoothly and evenly. While doing this I needed to carefully increase the speed at even increments, but you know your blender best and how it works. Transfer to a shallow pan, and pop into the freezer.
Freeze, stirring every hour or so until firm but scoop-able. In my pan in my freezer this took about 3 hours- it will likely vary according to the pan you use and how cold your freezer is. It will be best the first day it’s made. Scoop into small bowls, and eat with abandon.