L.A. pastry chef Karen Hatfield rediscovers the simply frosty pleasures of fluffy granita.
I first fell in love with the granita as a palate cleaner. It was the 1980s, and I was a young girl eating my way through the top Zagat-rated restaurants of Los Angeles. It was the pinnacle of elegance, although admittedly I remember the taste less than the drama: the perfectly times dance of finely dressed servers placing chilled, stemmed crystal glasses with what seemed to be an early dessert course. In these moments, restaurants cast their spell on me, and I knew instantly this was my true calling.
Years later, in the late '90s, I learned to make a "great" granita. I was working at Gramercy Tavern in New York for esteemed pastry chef Claudia Fleming. There was always a granita on the menu: almond, peach, raspberry—just about anything as long as there was tons of flavor. Most days, crates of amazing produce from the Greenmarket showed up, so there was always plenty of inspiration. I learned how to coax all the flavor from the fruit but still retain the light, fluffy, snowlike texture that is key to the best granita. And, more important, I learned that it was all about the taste and not so much the theatrics of yesteryear.
I served granita on and off as part of a first-course tasting dessert at our Michelin-starred restaurant, but I found less of a use for it over time. A few years ago, my family started visiting Hawaii during the summer, and we become obsessed with the shaved ice at Ululani's on Maui. Shaved ice and granita are pretty much the same thing, after all. Root beer and condensed milk may not have been the flavors I was used to, but on hot summer days, it's hard to find something more refreshing. My kids loved it so much that it inspired me to start making it again, but at home. Granita and summertime really go hand in hand.
My son loves watermelon and my daughter loves to cook, so the watermelon granita pulls everyone in. My son always selects just the right watermelon with the sweetest, strongest aroma, and then he carries the giant thing around to show how strong he is for a little guy. My daughter is patient and grates the granita with expert precision. So just like 20 years ago, it's off to the farmers' market to get the best melons from Weiser Family Farms and the sweetest strawberries from Harry's Berries to make our family's favorite summer treat.
Watermelon Granita with Hibiscus Syrup and Yogurt
Karen Hatfield serves this sophisticated granita at her L.A. restuarant, Odys + Penelope. Dried hibiscus flowers can be found at specialty markets, Latin markets, and health food stores. You can substitute grenadine syrup to good effect, but Hatfield asserts that hibiscus syrup best complements the fruit in this dish.