I live on the top floor of our six-story building, which takes the heat of summer to another level. As soon as the temperatures get warm and the days get longer, our tar roof begins to sop up the heat and then pump it into our apartment with the full-force vengeance of a busted furnace. If there are any other roof dwellers out there, you know exactly what I am talking about. It is a miserable, stifled, intensity that makes even the slightest bit of activity seem like torture.
It reminds me a bit of the kind of heat they get in Sicily, where at the height of summer it is not uncommon to awake at sunrise to soaring temperatures. Sicilians have unique coping mechanisms in place to deal with the inferno. They drive like maniacs in the streets of Palermo and Catania. They take to the seashores as much as possible, gathering on beaches and promenades, dangling off the decks of boats and rocky cliffs. And they eat ice-cold gelato, granita, and sorbetto for breakfast.
Starting your day with a huge mound of ice cream may seem decadent and misplaced to our somewhat Puritan sensibility of sweets and when they can be enjoyed. Remember when Bill Cosby fed chocolate cake to his kids for dinner?
Meh, meno male. Italians like to start the day with something sweet anyway, and the frozen part is purely common sense. Eating something very cold will lower the body's temperature, a good idea when your clothes are going to be soaked with sweat by 9 a.m. In a larger sense it reflects the Sicily's cultural history, an ability to adapt to any situation in order to further survival, as well as the ultimate enjoyment of life.
My favorite part is the soft, airy, buttery brioche roll that is the vehicle of choice for all of this frozen goodness. The bread is split open wide and stuffed to overflowing with gelato or sorbetto. Granita—basically liquid that is aerated and broken up by hand as it freezes—is looser and melts quickly, so it is usually served in a glass, layered con panna (with cream). Simply dunk and dip a piece of brioche into it, or load it on by the spoonful.
How can this breakfast be folly? There's bread for energy, some dairy, maybe some fruit, and with Granita al Caffè Con Panna, your morning coffee all in one cool, heat-dissipating shot.
If you want to try your hand at homemade brioche, go for it, but since turning on the oven defeats the purpose of keeping things cool, I try to let someone else do the baking. It is hard to duplicate the kind of bread you would find in Sicily. Italian brioche differs from the French version; it is richer and fluffier, more like a cushy pillow, and the outer layer isn't as flaky. If you have a good bakery near your house, you can get a brioche loaf and cut slices to fold around the gelato, or ask for a simple sweet roll.
To make the coffee granita, I follow this formula: 1/4 cup of granulated sugar for every two cups of brewed espresso or strong regular coffee. You can certainly adjust the sweetness to your taste. Whisk the sugar into the hot coffee, and let the mixture cool completely to room temperature before putting it into the freezer in a shallow metal or glass dish.
Monitor the freezing process; as the sides begin to freeze, using a whisk or fork to break it up and move it to the center. You'll have to do this every 15 minutes or so, sooner as it freezes more; I like to use a little whisk for more aeration and to strategically target the frozen spots.
When there is no more loose liquid in the mix, give it a really good whisking and let it freeze for about 15 to 20 minutes more.
To serve, you'll need some sweetened heavy cream whipped until it mounds softly. In a glass dessert dish or cup, put a generous layer of frozen granita. I like to add a small shot of ice-cold, brewed espresso here to get some extra coffee punch in the mix. Layer on some cream, then repeat the layers, ending with a mound of cream, which you can whip a bit stiffer for holding power. Top with some shaved chocolate and/or ground cinnamon and serve with brioche on the side. Dip pieces of the brioche into the mix, or fold pieces of it around spoonfuls of granita and cream.