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Cold Comfort

Ease Into Summer With Sophisticated Pistachio Gelato

June 13, 2004|DAVID LEITE | David Leite last wrote for the magazine about deep-dish French toast.

Perhaps it's my European ancestry or my predilection for the color green. But unlike the average American, I prefer a cone piled high with nut-studded pistachio gelato rather than serviceable vanilla ice cream. Not that I harbor any grudges against vanilla ice cream, mind you; in its most luscious form--French with tiny specks of seeds--it's quite enjoyable. For the most part, I find it best as a medium for mix-ins such as Oreos, Heath Bars and M&Ms.

The invention of Italian gelato predates the 1744 debut of American ice cream by fewer than 100 years, but culinary myths about its origin have swirled for centuries. Two of the more beloved and tenacious legends place gelato's icy ancestors with Marco Polo on his return from China in the 13th century (a trip some scholars doubt took place), and in Catherine de Medicis' dowry when she moved to France in 1533 to wed the Duc d'Orleans. But there is no record of how these treats were frozen nor are there any recipes.

"The first time man-made freezing techniques were written about in Europe was around the mid-1500s," says Micol Negrin, author of "Rustico: Regional Italian Country Cooking." "Until then, the only people in the Mediterranean who enjoyed cold sweets were those who had access to snow that came from Mt. Etna on the island of Sicily."

Nonetheless, these treats--the sharbats of the Arabs and the iced wines of the Italians--were not really frozen. According to food historians, European chefs began churning out true frozen desserts in the 1660s, which could happen only after the technology of artificial freezing was mastered.

Although all frozen desserts share this common origin--a culinary Eve, so to speak--there are differences in the results. "Gelato is usually made with an egg-yolk custard, which you rarely find in American ice cream," Negrin says. She also points out that gelato is denser, while the U.S. government allows up to 50% of ice cream's total volume to consist of nothing but air. There's one cultural distinction too: In Sicily, gelato is often nestled in a brioche and eaten for breakfast.

Narrow the field to pistachio gelato, and the differences are more nuanced. Some people prefer to leave the skins on the pistachios, resulting in a khaki-colored sweet. Others use skinned nuts for a soft pastel green. Above all, food coloring is out of the question. And although it's tempting to use California pistachios in this recipe, Negrin recommends the skinned Sicilian variety. "They lend just the right touch of authenticity," she says.


Pistachio Gelato

Makes about 1 quart

2 1/2 cups shelled unsalted pistachios

7 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

Coarsely grind the pistachios in a food processor. Remove 3/4 cup and set aside. Finely grind the remaining nuts. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale, about 3 or 4 minutes. Set aside.

Bring the cream, milk and finely ground nuts to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vanilla and salt. Very slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture, whisking briskly.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture registers 175 to 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, or until it thickly coats the back of the spoon and doesn't drip when swiped with your finger, about 20 minutes.

Immediately pour the mixture into a bowl that is set in another bowl filled with ice water. Stir until cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The next day strain the mixture, pressing the ground nuts with the back of a spoon. Discard the nuts in the strainer. Process the gelato in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions, or about 25 to 30 minutes. Add the reserved 3/4 cup chopped nuts during the last minutes of processing. Transfer to a plastic container, place a piece of plastic wrap on the surface, cover with a lid and freeze until solid.

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