There really is nothing quite like this Sicilian summertime breakfast tradition, and if you’ve ever had brioche and almond granita you’re likely to agree! For me it brings back a warm flood of memories from my years growing up in Catania when my family and I would sit outside the local bar to enjoy this treat. Our attempt to recreate granita di mandorle & brioscia (almond granita & brioche) isn’t quite the same as the real Sicilian bar experience, but it comes close.
Granita, a semi-frozen, flavored mixture similar to sorbet, is a Sicilian creation that pre-dates the Romans and can be traced back to the Arab rule of Sicily. Originally it was made by mixing the snow from Mt. Etna (Mt. Nero’s namesake) with fruit juice or sometimes rosewater. Eventually it was discovered that mixing sea salt with the snow created a refrigerant with which the granita could be frozen; this allowed the snow to be removed as an actual ingredient and the recipe changed to its current one. Now it is made with water rather than snow, flavorings are added and then the mixture is frozen by surrounding it with ice and salt or, more recently, by placing it in the freezer.
Granita, much like all traditional Italian food, varies greatly from region to region. It can be flavored with an endless variety of fruits, flowers, nuts, chocolate, or espresso and is sometimes served con panna, with whipped cream. Granita di mandorle, or almond flavored granita, is very typical to the region of Catania, as are the coffee, cocoa, lemon and blackberry flavored variations.
Traditionally, granita is eaten with fresh bread (pane fresco) or with the famous brioscia siciliana, the Sicilian version of broiche. Brioscia is a yeasty sweet bread made with eggs and milk and is somewhat similar to a criossant. The term brioche can be confusing and often, depending on what spelling you use, you’ll yield drastically different results in a recipe search. The word spelled as the French brioche can describe a number of pastries, from croissants to other varieties of the Italian brioche, but what we’re after here is a distinctly Sicilian version with a specific taste.
The brioscia siciliana is sometimes called brioscia cu’ tuppu in the Sicilian dialect, a phrase that refers to its shape which is semi-hemispherical and topped with a small ball, or tuppu (bun). It is popularly served with granita for breakfast or with gelato, sometimes stuffed inside the brioscia to create a heavenly dessert-like sandwich. Even among different regions of Sicily we see variations on the brioche; there exists, for example, a Sicilian brioscia made with saffron, which is almost exclusive to bars in the region of Catania and is recognizable by its bright yellow color.
Both of the recipes that make up this unique and refreshing breakfast are surprisingly easy to reproduce at home.
Almond Granita/Granita di Mandorle
Almond Granita can be made entirely by hand simply by melting almond paste, also known as marzipan, with tepid water and stirring it while it freezes. The simplicity of the recipe makes it far from intimidating, but keep in mind that the key to granita lies in its consistency. It should not be too icy, in fact it should be more on the creamy side.
- 650 ml water (approximately 2 and 3/4 cups)
- 200 g marzipan almond paste (approximately 7oz)
Bring the water to boil in a pan and cut the marzipan into small pieces. Once the water has boiled, allow it to cool until it is no longer scalding, but still warm. Add the marzipan and stir until it is completely melted. This step can take a bit of stirring so some people like to put the marzipan in water and leave it overnight so it melts on its own. After the almond paste has melted in the water the resulting mixture is poured into a metal bowl and placed in freezer. (It’s worthy to note that this is how some Italians make almond milk at home. If you leave the mixture in its liquid stage and place it in the refrigerator you’ll have a refreshing traditional Sicilian drink!)
Once the melted almond paste has been in the freezer for a while you’ll have to check on it, probably within an hour or two (depending on the temperature of the water and of the freezer itself). As soon as the mixture begins to freeze, break apart all of the ice crystals that have formed using a spoon, fork or other utensil. Put the almond paste mixture back in the freezer. Every half hour take it back out of the freezer, diligently smash apart all of the ice crystals into very fine pieces, and return it to the freezer once again. This process is very important and will determine the final outcome and texture of the granita. After several hours of repeating the process your granita will be ready to serve. If you leave it in the freezer overnight just be sure to smash-up the ice crystals that have formed before serving it, or put it in a food processor for a few seconds to regain the proper consistency. Granita melts quickly so it’s best to keep it in the freezer until it’s ready to be served.
Sicilian Brioche/Brioscia Siciliana
Recipes for brioche vary greatly and it can be difficult to find one that recreates the proper texture and taste present in the Sicilian variety, but luckily we’ve done the research for you. Although the best recipes for brioscia siciliana are written in Italian, we did find one at goingthroughitaly.com that closely replicates them and guided us in making our own. Brioche isn’t too hard to produce fatta in casa, it just takes a little care, as does anything worthwhile.
- 4 eggs
- 1000 g bread flour (approximately 4 1/2 cups) –OR– equal parts “00” flour and Manitoba flour** (recommended)
- 400 g milk (approximately 14 oz)
- 200 g sugar (about a rounded 3/4 cup)
- 200 g butter, room temp (approximately 7 oz)
- 2 cubes yeast (or 2 tbsp active dry)
- 20 g salt (1/2 tbsp)
- 1 packet vanillina (optional, but recommended)
Place all of the ingredients with the exception of the milk in a large bowl. Combine together in a kitchen aid using the whisk attachment. Work the ingredients together slowly, once combined add the milk little by little until the dough is very sticky and clings to the walls of the bowl. In all this should take approximately 15 minutes. Cover the dough and let it rise overnight or until the dough has tripled in size. When it’s ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200 Celsius (approximately 391 F), and divide the dough into 12-16 portions. Remove a small piece from each portion, roll both pieces into balls, and place the small ball into an indentation you create at the top of the larger ball. Wet your hands with water before handling the dough so it won’t stick. Brush the brioscia with beaten egg white and bake for about 20 minutes, until golden and glossy. You can also sprinkle the tops of the brioscia with granulated sugar.
**Note: “00” flour is a particularly fine grind of flour popular in Italy. Manitoba flour is a special high protein Canadian flour exported to Italy. These two together produce the best results, but if you don’t have access to them try bread flour, or use all-purpose flour and substitute in a few teaspoons of semolina or vital wheat gluten. The goal is to triple the dough in size, this is why high protein flour is more desirable.
Although this Sicilian breakfast may take a little bit of preparation, it’s actually quite simple and certainly well worth the effort. Enjoy it the Italian way by pinching off a chunk of your brioche and dunking it into the granita as it melts!Buona Colazione!