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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Stir 1 day, then chill. Or: The Mother of All Ice Cream Sandwiches

When I arrived in Palermo, the first thing I wanted to do was have a gelato or slushy granita in a brioche. I now know the first one I ate to have been junk.

This weekend, however, I struck gold.

At the end of a Sunday walk, I found a crowd spilling out onto the sidewalk from the Gelateria da Carlo near the train station. I pushed my way in and saw the sign: Brioche Calde con Gelato. “Calde” (hot) was underlined three times, which was all the convincing I needed.

Ticket and pre-paid receipt in hand, I waited for my number (78) to be called. I ordered and the guy pulled a brioche from a plastic bag, halved it (moving the brioche, not the knife for some reason) and filled it with hazelnut and almond gelato. He put the whole thing in what looked like a George Foreman Grill, closed it, and let it work its magic for 14 seconds.

It comes out as a sealed unit that looks like a flying saucer, and the first bite gives you the warmth of the brioche, the cold of the ice cream and the little bit that’s just starting to melt from the heat.

Hoo, dear.

On Saturday, in the town of Cinisi, about a half-hour train ride west of Palermo, I met Santi Palazzolo, a master pastry chef, master chocolatier and ice cream fanatic.

“My grandfather didn’t have machines to make ice cream,” he says, referring back to the Palazzolo pastry shop’s founder. “One guy would turn the basin (which sat in an ultra-cold salted slush mix) with his hands while my grandfather would scrape the ice off the inside,” he said, demonstrating what looked like a ridiculously labor-intensive procedure.

We’ve come a long way.

Palazzolo led the way to the shop’s giant basement laboratory, passing through dedicated pastry and chocolate sections, before stopping in a tiny room with what looked like three stainless steel washing machines: a pasteurizer, an emulsifier and a chiller.

Like the setup at the Padova olive oil mill, it ain’t sexy, but the process yields incredible results.

Palazzolo breaks his gelato into two rough categories: gelato without milk, which are the fruit flavors, and gelato with milk - the ‘nut & bean’ flavors (like vanilla, coffee or hazelnut), with the latter group spending up to a whopping 24 hours in the emulsifier before going into the chiller. Mouthfeel fans and the rest of humanity will find this time well spent.

There are a stack of tricks and techniques like this Palazzolo uses to coax the most flavor from his ingredients, some technical like low-temperature pasteurization, others learned.

“We add lemon juice to that gelato just before refrigerating it (as opposed to all other fruit flavors, where the juice is added at the beginning),” he says. “It gets rid of a metallic taste.”

Back in Palermo, after giving my complete attention to my hot brioche with gelato, I watched the world go by.

Carlo’s is not beautiful. It sits in a building made from what looks like fancy cinder blocks and the inside is lit with blue lights. But it’s overflowing with people of all ages, all enjoying their Sunday treat. Two year old Palermitans, whose chocolate-covered faces would be best cleaned with a mop, mill around with goofy grins. Pre-teen girls, with little rolls of fat spilling out between their layers of fake Dolce & Gabbana clothes, mill around in packs. There are also middle-aged couples, workers on a break, grandparents, and teens on scooters.

It’s horns, Vespas, sunglasses when the sun’s not out, cigarettes, litter, strutting and family. It’s a kid wearing two shades of orange clothes and his dad with the same two shades on his cone. It’s a micro fender-bender and the arm flapping, hunched shoulder discussion that follows and the guy who rides by with a cardboard license plate taped to the fender of his scooter.

Today, hot brioche in hand, I got a big scoop of Palermo.

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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