Hiking along the narrow, terraced trail that hugged the hillside between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza is something I will never forget. The breathtaking views from the jagged cliffs, seemingly floating above the sparkling sea, somehow made me ignore the steep and often precarious trail at my feet. Yet every twist and turn of the trail promised beauty – a small home built, stone by stone, onto the side of a mountain with a garden or vineyard utilizing every inch of available space or the hues of blue calmly glittering below in the hazy October sun. The beautiful vistas preoccupied me during the climbs and lured me further along the trail. The requisite stops to capture the views became a welcomed respite. At one particular turn, I remember catching my first glimpse of Vernazza in the distance, the crown jewel of Italy’s Cinque Terre (five lands) perched atop a rocky point, almost waving me onward, urging me to move my feet a little faster.
The trail provided plenty of scenic opportunity to view Vernazza from above. It was a mind game of sorts as the descent became a game of switchbacks, each one teasing me with a more focused, detailed view of the town and the umbrellas that flanked portions of the marina. I was anxious to get off the trail and into the village and so were my friends. Once we dropped down onto the winding, narrow streets, the breeze from the ocean found its way to all of us, and we accepted it with open arms. From there, it was a short walk until we emerged in the center of the village beneath the clock tower and right along the promenade. The umbrellas I saw from above were busily playing host to the late lunch crowd, but the gelateria was our first stop and most deservedly so.
A well-established line awaited us outside the gelateria, and we eagerly joined it imagining the stainless steel tubs parked side-by-side in the freezer with each one containing its own colorful flavor. While we waited, every customer who left the shop enticed us with their cup or cone. We all eventually made our way to the counter, got our share and settled around the marina. I chose a stone bench that backed up to a large rocky break wall that sheltered the marina from the ocean. It gave me a view of the entire marina and a great view of the beach and nearby cafe.
Strangely, I don’t recall what kind of gelato I ordered or how it tasted. Maybe it was the charming, picturesque village of Vernazza that provided numerous visual distractions similar to those that I experienced on the trail that led me there. Maybe it was the decision to make a phone call home to Los Angeles where my husband was graciously holding down the fort with two young children so I could fulfill my wanderlust, a part of me that had been hibernating in the advent of motherhood. Maybe it was hearing the sweet sounds of my husband’s and little ones’ voices coming through my cell phone and wishing they were sitting beside me sharing the experience instead of being thousands of miles away.
I may never remember what flavor of gelato was inside my cup in Vernazza almost six years ago. And at this point it’s pretty much irrelevant. It could have been any number of different flavors, but sharing it with those you love, whether near or far, is what made it memorable.
The combination of flavors were inspired from a favorite and now discontinued flavor from Paciugo, an artisan gelato chain. Authentic Sicilian gelato does not contain eggs like a custard-based ice cream does. I unsuccessfully played around with a couple variations (they were always too thin) and settled with some of the measurements from Heidi Swanson's blog 101 Cookbooks. The rest of the recipe and the method are my own.
- 4 cups whole milk, divided
- 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons corn starch
- 4 to 6 saffron threads
- 1/4 cup finely chopped kumquat peels (without pith) or 2 tablespoons finely grated orange zest
- pinch of salt
- Pour 3 cups of milk into a medium-sized saucepan. Add saffron and bring it to a simmer over medium-low heat until small bubbles appear along the side. Do not allow milk to a boil.
- Meanwhile in a medium sized bowl, add remaining cup of milk, cocoa powder, sugar, cornstarch, orange zest, and pinch of salt. Mix well.
- Remove saffron threads with a slotted spoon or small sieve and discard. Pour cocoa mixture into simmering milk and continue to cook until thickened, about 11 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and pour into large glass bowl. Set bowl on counter to cool slightly before covering with plastic wrap. To avoid a skin from forming on top of mixture, press plastic wrap onto surface of the liquid. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours (overnight is best) until thoroughly chilled.
- Process in electronic ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions, approximately 20 to 25 minutes until thickened. Serve or freeze. For best results, frozen gelato should be allowed to sit at room temperature for 5-8 minutes before serving.
Preparation: 1 day before, place the ice-cream maker freezer bowl into the freezer. Do not skimp on time here. The freezer bowl must be completely frozen beforehand.
I highly recommend using finely chopped kumquat skins (no pith) or a combination of kumquats and orange zest. The little bits of intense orange flavor really knocked this one out of the park, in my opinion. Orange peel can be finely diced and used, but I would suggest candying it first; it may be too bitter otherwise.
Do not skimp on the chilling time. It also gives the flavors a chance to develop and marry.
On one of my attempts, I used my prized Valrhona dark cocoa powder. The result was a bitter orange gelato, which may appeal to some. It didn't go over well at my house, though. The next time around I used Ghirardelli unsweetened cocoa, and that worked much better.
Do not overdo it with the saffron. I started with 8 threads and that was way too bitter along with the chocolate. A subtle background flavor is what you're after.
An industrial gelato maker would probably have resulted in a smoother consistency in the gelato. The home ice cream maker wasn't able to make the gelato the same as the kind I purchased before, but it was definitely close.