Cool Off Like an Italian: Gelo di Melone
Boxes full of whole watermelons and halved watermelons placed on crushed ice in grocery stores invite us to touch, smell, weigh with our hands, employ whatever method of assessment we rely upon to choose the specimen to carry home, slice and savor. I grew up calling this summer favorite cocomero. Later on I learned that in some parts of Italy it is called anguria and in others melone d’acqua (literally, watermelon).
Watermelons are popular in countries around the world and I believe no justification for this is required. As a child I eagerly waited for summer, when, among other delectable fruits, cocomero was in season. Road-side stands selling whole watermelons and/or chilled slices of the fruit are a summer feature throughout Italy. My father liked to engage in pre-purchase watermelon appraisal, a complex activity that comprised specific hand movements, knocking on the fruit — as if someone inside it could answer: “Yes, I am ripe and sweet” — and also the cutting of a wedge, called tassello, for the definitive quality assurance evaluation: a bite into the glistening red flesh of the fruit. That allowed my father’s palate to decide whether the watermelon was crisp and sweet to satisfaction and therefore worthy of his purchase.
Cocomero and panzanella (my father’s version of the traditional tomato and bread dish) were the classic picnic items of our summer outings. Since panzanella has olive oil among its ingredients, and we ate it with our hands, cocomero in that context worked also as a cleanser.
We always ate watermelon au naturel, slice after slice, leaving on the plate scattered seeds and pieces of rind. But that doesn’t mean watermelon cannot be used as an ingredient for some delicious dishes, like the Sicilian gelo di melone. The basic ingredients of this dessert are puréed watermelon, sugar and starch to thicken the mixture (in my case, as a result of various tests, cornstarch). Different recipes use vanilla, jasmine, cinnamon, in some combination, to add nuances of flavor, and the surface decorations they describe include dark chocolate shavings, diced candied fruit, chopped pistachios (alone or in combination). I let vanilla be the only addition and chocolate the only decorative element.
Gelo di melone is easy to make, light yet utterly satisfying. It is also pretty, of a striking red color. It is perfect as a family treat and to serve to guests.
Gelo di Melone
1 and 1/4 pound pulp of watermelon, cut into pieces, any black seeds removed
1/4 cup white sugar, ultra-fine or granulated
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract
dark chocolate shavings, optional, to decorate the surface
Run the watermelon through the food processor or blender until liquefied. Push through a strainer to eliminate the small, white seedcoats found in seedless varieties. You will end up with 500 ml (a bit more than two cups) of juice.
Place sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan and pour on them some of the puréed watermelon. Blend thoroughly so no lumps of cornstarch are detectable.
Add the remaining watermelon. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring often. Maintain the boil for about five minutes, stirring almost constantly. The mixture will thicken somewhat.
In the meantime, rinse four small ramekins or similar dishes, and drain (but don’t dry).
Remove the pan from the heat and let cool a minute or so. Add the vanilla extract and stir briefly to blend.
Divide the gelo equitably among the ramekins and chill in the fridge until set, at least five hours.
You can unmold each portion of gelo on a small dessert plate or ice cream dish (it flattens in the process: see top photo) or serve it in the ramekin or dish in which it cooled.
Final step: with a knife, make shavings from a piece of dark chocolate and sprinkle them on the surface. Bring to the table and enjoy.
P.S. If you have a lot of watermelon on hand, weigh the necessary quantity of pulp, process and strain it as specified in the recipe, then pour it into a container and place it in the freezer. When you fancy some gelo di melone, let the watermelon thaw and then proceeded with the rest of the recipe.
With a specialty in handmade pasta, Simona provides detailed, accessible tutorials teaching readers to cook like an Italian right from home on Live Like an Italian as well as on her own blog, briciole.