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Who doesn’t love really good gelato? But unless you have visited Italy, the chances are that you’ve never really experienced the full pleasure of the real thing. Yes, there are those containers in the supermarket that are labeled gelato, but it really is just ice cream by another name. Sometimes it’s quite good, but to call it gelato is like comparing a luxury Italian fashion brand to a more traditional American one. True gelato is elegant, beautiful to look at, and fragile all at once. It tastes divine. But how it got to be so is full of history and argument.
Authentic Italian gelato, as we know it today, didn’t come about until after the Second World War, but a long and complicated history preceded the contemporary version. The early Romans were known to serve a mixture of snow with milk, salt, and sugar as a beverage. The Arab influence in Sicily (the birthplace of true ice cream) transformed it to the degree that they had learned that ice from natural sources could be kept longer with salt, which increases the temperature at which it melts. They also introduced some exotic flavors to it and the word sherbet derives from an Arabic word.
Other known historic dates relevant to gelato's development begin in the sixteenth century at the court of Catherine de Medici, royal consort of Henry II, in France, where a frozen dessert was concocted by her famous Florentine cooks to be served to visiting Spanish royalty. More than one hundred years later, in 1689, an enterprising Sicilian named Procopio di Coltelli opened the Café Procope in Paris which became hugely popular with the arts and theater folk. He came up with a rudimentary apparatus for making an ice cream confection based on a family recipe. Paris swooned and café society was born.
Later developments in the progress of gelato are related to the history of refrigeration to preserve foods, something which wasn’t affordable in Italy except to the very rich until the end of World War II. But well before that, the ice cream machine was invented in America. It actually came to be recommended by Pellegrino Artusi in his famous book from 1891, The Art of Eating Well, in which he says:
…it would be a pity not to indulge frequently in voluptuous pleasure ice cream* provides.
Here I certainly agree.
Even using the machine in Artusi’s day was still hard work because you had to crank the thing by hand. Now we have the luxury of electric machines that will do the job for you in around 25 minutes.
*In his book, Artusi uses “gelato” to describe the whole gamut of sweetened frozen desserts from ice cream to sherbet (sorbeto in Italian), but in the 1996 translation by Kyle M. Phillips III, Phillips wisely separates out ice cream and sherbet.
Real gelato differs from American ice cream in that it is intensely flavored and vivid in color. American commercial ice cream by law must contain at least 10% butterfat, whereas, for Italian gelato, the minimum is 3.5% but usually no more than between 6% and 10%. American ice cream has much more air beaten into it than gelato, and also uses more egg yolks, while gelato would use fewer—if any at all. Personally, I prefer not to use them but some American dessert chefs still do. And there are reasons for this: Ice crystals are the enemy of good ice cream and gelato, and fat and egg yolks help by taking up space where water molecules would crowd in and freeze. So, working around this and still getting real gelato, in the end, takes some skill. Just as interesting, in high-end gelaterias, it is not served with an ice cream scoop but a paddle and also at a temperature slightly warmer than American ice cream, hence its fragility.
I have a weakness for gelato that has fully developed fruit flavors. This is my own version of Roman-style artisanal gelato that I love, as made at home:
- 16 to 18 ounces fresh rasberries
- 4 cups whole milk (divided, 3 plus 1)
- 3 tablespoons corn starch
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup dry milk powder
- 2 tablespoons corn syrup
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt (do not use sea salt)
- 2 tablespoons dextrose powder (optional)
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons honey