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In 1624 the populace of Palermo fell victim to the Black Death, the Plague. As the Palermitani prayed, built fires, and collected the dead they waited for Salvation from Above. Salvation came in a citizen’s fever dream, in which Santa Rosalia, though dead for 400 years, appeared to one Sig. Bonello.
La santuzza, as Santa Rosalia is known, directed Sig. Bonello to retrieve her bones and carry them in a Grand Procession to all the corners of the city. With the procession accomplished, the Plague abated and the city and her inhabitants were safe. And so Santa Rosalia was named Patron Saint of Palermo.
Cities throughout Italy are justifiably famous for their magnificent processions honoring the Catholic Church’s many holy men and women. In Palermo in mid-July one can witness the re-enactment of Sig. Bonello’s four-cornered tour of the city. This is u fistinu, a most glorious pageant in which the townspeople carry a float decorated as a ship with an immense statue of Santa Rosalia poised proudly atop. Fireworks and live musicians entertain as onlookers watch the float make its way through the capital. Festivities abound with much merriment, eating and drinking.
One of the many specialties typical of this festival is Sicily’s famous Cassata, an elaborate pastry creation made of sweetened ricotta cream studded with chocolate and candied citrus encased in a rum soaked sponge cake, topped with lemon icing, all wrapped up in Sicily’s famous marzipan, pasta reale. Another is Watermelon Pudding, a classic known as Gelo di Melone or Gelo di Anguria. For a whimsical touch, mini-chocolate chips mimic watermelon seeds and are always a welcome addition. These desserts, refreshing lightly sweetened puddings flavored with chocolate, coffee or various fruits are found throughout Sicily in the summer.
Tradition dictates the use of cornstarch to thicken the gelo, however I prefer the texture achieved with gelatine, and so I have used it here. Puddings can be made in large molds or individual size servings. A high mold, one that almost looks like a two story affair, is particularly beautiful. The prettier the mold, the more impressive the gelo.
The Arab influence is present in the traditional flavorings - cinnamon and either jasmine or rose water. Again, in a nod to the influence from the East, this delightful dessert is often garnished with pistachios and jasmine leaves and blossoms. The blossoms are a particular delight, their delicate beauty and intoxicating perfume evoking the spirit of the island.
Gelo di Melone
•4 cups strained watermelon juice, divided
•½ cup superfine sugar
•6 teaspoons KNOX Unfla-vored Gelatine
•¼ cup mini-chocolate chips
•1 teaspoon jasmine or rose water
•⅛ -¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, if desired
•organic jasmine leaves and blossoms, (or other decorative foliage) and chopped pistachios to garnish
Pour 1 cup of watermelon juice into a wide bottom bowl, and sprinkle with gelatine. Set aside for 5 minutes to allow the gelatine to soften. Place the bowl of softened gelatine in a skillet filled with 1 inch of gently simmering water. Stir gelatin until it is dissolved and clear. Meanwhile, place the remaining 3 cups of juice and sugar (and cinnamon, if using) into a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.
Remove the juice and sugar mixture from the heat and add the dissolved gelatine and jasmine or rose water, stirring to combine thoroughly. Make an ice water bath by filling a large bowl half full with ice cubes and adding 2 cups of water. Place the saucepan containing the juice and gelatine mixture over the ice water bath, stirring occasionally to promote even cooling, being careful not to splash any ice water into the saucepan.
Once the mixture is cool and has begun to thicken, add the chocolate chips and pour the mixture into a 6-cup mold. Don’t add the chocolate chips when the mixture is thin, or they will not remain suspended throughout the gelo, but rather descend en masse directly to the bottom of the mold. Do be sure to add the chocolate chips before the mixture has begun to clump however, or the gelo will not set up smoothly. Cover the mold with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
To unmold, dampen 2 kitchen towels in hot water and press the towels against the side of the mold to loosen the gelo or briefly set the mold in hot water, being careful not to let any water seep over the edges and onto the surface of the gelo. Place a serving platter over the mold. Tightly grip both platter and mold and invert. Decorate with jasmine leaves and blossoms and chopped pistachios.
Note: to use cornstarch in place of gelatine, in a medium saucepan combine ⅔ cup of cornstarch with sugar. Add all the juice and (optional) cinnamon, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil 1 minute until quite thick, stirring well. Proceed as above to cool and mold, adding jasmine or rose water and mini-chocolate chips.
A Palermo si dice Viva Palermo e Santa Rosalia!