Summer Cries Out For The Rise Of Coffee Granita
10:59 AM EDT on August 5, 2022
Americans drink a lot of coffee. Back in 2020, something called the National Coffee Association found that 70 percent of Americans drink coffee at least once a week, and that more than 62 percent of Americans drink coffee at least once per day. Wow! Start with 330 million total Americans, delete the approximately 125 million who do not drink coffee every day, then multiply by 365 days in a year. Then, then, take the 26 million or so people who don't drink coffee once per day but do drink coffee once per week, and multiply by 52. Then add the coffee consumed by the first group and the coffee consumed by the second group. What do you get? You get a buttload of coffee, is what you get.
In the northern hemisphere of our great planet, meteorological summer runs from June 1 to August 31. Math tells us that daily drinkers and weekly drinkers consume one-fourth of their yearly total of coffee beverages during the summer months. Would it disturb you to learn that of the approximately 18.7 billion coffee beverages consumed by Americans on summer mornings, almost none of them are the correct coffee beverage for summer?
This is because Americans by and large do not make a regular habit of consuming coffee granita, and even less so at breakfast, even when the hot and humid weather of summer absolutely demands it. Granita di caffè, as it is known in Sicily, where they enjoy it at all hours of the day and year-round, is delicious frozen coffee, served at the icy temperature and with the delightful fine-shaved texture of sorbet. It is the perfect caffeine delivery method for a sweltering summer morning, and yet if you go to your local coffee shop tomorrow and attempt to order one coffee granita, they will give you a confused look and offer you something else, something far less suited to the moment. Terrible.
But what about iced coffee, you are asking, like an absolute fool. An editor at this very website, a hopeless fellow by the name of Barry Petchesky, asked more or less this same question when I pitched this blog. I'm sorry, but iced coffee is a very poor substitute for coffee granita. When you go to Pitango and order lemon sorbetto, they do not offer you lemonade poured over ice. It is understood by all that lemonade which has been frozen is more luxurious and satisfying than regular old unfrozen lemonade. Iced coffee is coffee with ice, whereas coffee granita is coffee that has been made into ice. Coffee granita is thickened by freezing, which gives it a very enjoyable texture, far superior to that of iced coffee, which must have rich dairy stirred into it in order to become more texturally interesting than water. But dairy gives iced coffee a mouth-coating quality which works counter to its cooling properties. And cooling is a very important consideration. The laws of thermodynamics tell us, I assure you, that coffee which has been made into ice is in all cases colder than coffee which has been cooled and then poured over ice. I want something frosty cold, refreshing, and tasting strongly of coffee, and I will simply not accept your mild-tasting, half-as-cold, dairy-thickened coffee drink.
But what about a delicious frappuccino, you are now asking, causing me to gag and retch. No! For one thing, a "frappuccino" is loaded down with hysterical amounts of dairy and sugar, making it the sort of thing you should absolutely not consume daily, or really even weekly. For another, a "frappuccino" is not nearly frozen enough. Leaving aside that you can buy bottled "frappuccinos" from refrigerated cases at the grocery store—where they are not frozen at all—even a freshly prepared "frappuccino" is more of a milkshake than a proper granita di caffè. You slurp a "frappuccino" through a straw, whereas a proper granita di caffè is served with a spoon. It will melt along the way and loosen up, yes, but first it will be too cold and icy for a straw. When you most need it to cool you down, right at the outset, it will be maximally frosty. Then, after the granita has cooled you into the comfort zone, you may sip it or go at it with a straw, as it becomes less frozen. A vulgar "frappuccino" will go from milkshake to chocolate milk to vile, separated, hand-temperature sludge over the same stretch of time. Disgusting.
Ah, but what about coffee ice cream, you go on to ask, proceeding in the completely wrong direction. You asshole. This question belittles us both. For one thing, coffee ice cream, in the best of cases, is mostly dairy. If there's coffee in there at all, it's in trace amounts, and was brewed God knows when. More to the point, most coffee ice creams are merely coffee-flavored, and have as much in common with brewed coffee as an orange-scented Mr. Sketch marker has with fresh-squeezed orange juice. Breyers coffee-flavored ice cream, for example, is made using coffee extract, and contains not one but two dairy products (milk and cream) and not one but two sweeteners (corn syrup and sugar) in greater quantities. You are of course free to enjoy your coffee ice cream, but you and I must agree that the craving being satisfied is completely separate from the craving for a seasonally appropriate coffee preparation. In fact, none of these cold, variously coffee-adjacent items scratch the particular itch addressed by a bowl of delicious, freezing cold coffee granita.
It is actually not hard for you to make your own coffee granita, in the comfort of your own kitchen. There are at least two gizmo-aided ways of doing this, and there are at least two non-gizmo ways of doing it. They all start with making a batch of coffee, which you can do however you normally make coffee. You can decide for yourself whether to dissolve some sugar in your coffee before turning it into granita. Some of the really tasty coffee granita recipes are essentially frozen caffè corretto, which is coffee with a measure of booze in it. Add a shot of Kahlúa, is what I'm saying. Or don't! I don't care! Coffee granita is perfect even if made with just black drip coffee.
If you have one of those fancy stand mixers, they make a handy Shave Ice attachment that you can purchase, and then it's as simple as freezing your coffee in ice molds and then going to town with your expensive gizmo. That is Gizmo Option Number One. Gizmo Option Number Two involves making your batch of coffee and then pouring it into an ice cream maker and later removing it from the ice cream maker when it achieves the desired texture. You can opt for a slushy texture, like what you'd get from a Slurpee machine at a 7-Eleven, but to me that's not quite right. Remember, you are not looking for something that can be slurped through a straw right away. The ice crystals should be super fine and the texture overall should be very dense, and of course it should be freezing, freezing cold.
If you do not have one of these gizmos, you still have a couple of options. A straightforward if labor-intensive way of making granita is to freeze a block of tasty liquid—in this case, delicious coffee—in a heavy dish and then use a sturdy spoon or spatula or bench scraper to VERY CAREFULLY shave some ice off the top and then scoop it into a cup or bowl. When I got granita di caffè at a little stand in Catania, the extremely grouchy woman behind the counter scraped it in this manner from inside of a small frozen well of coffee set in her countertop. It ruled! A straightforward and less labor-intensive way is to pour your liquid into that same heavy dish and put it into the freezer until the edges just start to freeze, and then use a fork to break up and stir the liquid, socking it back in the freezer and repeating the fork process a few times until you've got a nice snowy texture and a granita that can be spooned into cups. Here is a video of someone doing exactly that, and while making by-God coffee granita. The ice crystals will be somewhat larger, but the nice thing is you can make and serve your granita as cold as you could possibly want it. This, too, rules very hard.
Two days ago I went out for a tasty breakfast sandwich—bacon, egg, and cheese on toasted farm bread, with curried ketchup (delicious)—from a lovely local cafe and bakery. I enjoyed my breakfast out in the cafe's shaded courtyard. After devouring the enormous sandwich in approximately three bites, I relaxed at my table with a nice cold iced americano, served black. This did not hit the spot. It was reasonably cool outside when I first ordered my breakfast, but on a cloudless day in August the relentless sun soon pushed the air temperature into the high 80s, and did whatever it is that causes the dew point to rise and for the air to feel like the interior of a bamboo steamer. The coffee was never cold enough to really fight back against the heat, and the ice soon melted and turned the beverage watery and gross. And even if it had not melted, the drink was never anything more special than coffee, but colder.
I suspect that there are two reasons why coffee granita has not overtaken these poor substitutes and become the summertime norm in the U.S. First, even if you are sitting there reading this and thinking, "wow, to start a boiling August workday with a cooling and relaxing bowl of frozen coffee, eaten with a spoon at a table, what a luxury, what a delight," there's a good chance the practical constraints of your daily existence—your demanding work schedule, your miserable commute, the dehumanizing moment-to-moment optimization increasingly forced upon us by our capitalist overlords, the desperate unending hustle of making ends meet in our hell times—make the idea of a morning coffee that requires the use of a utensil seem like an extraordinary luxury. But even if that were not the case, some number of people reading this will picture themselves sitting at a table in public at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, using a spoon to eat bites of frozen coffee, and will worry that this will be a somewhat more conspicuous and possibly embarrassing way to load up on caffeine at the start of a workday. That a coffee granita's very frozenness makes it inappropriate outside of dessert, which is special and distinct because it is reserved for consuming silly things, purely for enjoyment's sake.
I can't do anything about the former. To the latter I say: Nonsense! I have sat among the Sicilians while they fire down their delicious morning granitas (with whipped cream on top, in many cases), and Sicilians are not too much sillier than any other group of people. It is time for us to rise up as a nation and demand better, not just from our diners, cafés, and coffee shops, but from ourselves. Summertime can and should be coffee granita time.