Americans love their frozen desserts. Frozen treats are enjoyed on a regular basis by about 90% of households in the United States. Ice cream is very popular. It contains about 50% air. Gelato, by contrast, has only 25 to 30% air. Gelato is denser but has less fat than its cousin, ice cream. Gelato is often served warmer than ice cream. It has a texture that is softer and silkier. Few things are as enjoyable as a gelato cup on a hot, summer day.
Gelato got its start thousands of years ago. Frozen desserts got their start somewhere around 3000 BC. At the time, people in Asia found they could take crushed ice and add different flavors. In ancient Egypt, about five centuries later, would take a cup of ice and sweeten it with fruit juice. Pharaohs would offer the treat to theor guests. Romans would take the ice from Vesuvius and Etna, the volcanoes, and put honey on it. It was not quite the gelato cups we have today but it was a great precursor.
Gelato was born during the Renaissance. The famous Italian family, the Medicis, held a contest in Florence for the best frozen dessert that could be developed. A chicken farmer and amateur cook named Ruggeri entered a frozen treat that he had created in his spare time. This was made from ice and very sweet juice from fruit. When he won the contest, everyone wanted to taste and enjoy what he had created. He was treated like a rock star. This was the a giant step towards the gelato cups we have today.
The Canterina de Medici brought Ruggeri to France because she thought his treat could compete against the fine chefs in France and their desserts, which were world renowned. There the future King of France enjoyed Ruggeri’s treat at his wedding.
The Medici family hired Bernardo Buontalenti sometime in the late 1500s to create a wonderful meal for the King of Span, who was visiting Italy. He prepares a beautiful meal and display. This is the first reported tasting of what is now called gelato. He had taken Ruggeri’s creation and added milk and cream. The creamy version of Ruggeri’s frozen dessert went over very well. Now, Buontalenti is called the father of gelato.
It was not until Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli got his hands on gelato that it exploded across Europe. A famous and amazing restaurateur, he took gelato to Paris where he opened a cafe. He served chocolate, exotic coffees from all over the world and a gelato that he had developed from Buontalenti’s. He served it in small glasses. They looked a lot like egg cups. This was a gigantic success and word of gelato spread like wildfire across France and then to the rest of the continent. People were all about getting gelato cups.
In 17708, gelato crossed the ocean to the Americas. Giovanni Basiolo brought it with him when he went to New York. He had two kinds of the delicacy. There was one version that included ice and milk mixed with pistachio, coffee, cinnamon or chocolate. That is the gelato we know today. The other was ice with fruit and fruit juices The main ones that were used were strawberries and lemons, This had it own name, sorbetto.
When the hand crank freezer was improved and refined in 1846, the way Americans made and viewed gelato changed. By combining the mixture in this new freezer, the resulting gelato was churned as it froze creating the creamy dessert we have in gelato cups today. Prior to this, gelato was more granular in nature. Now it was creamy. This is also when gelato’s fluffier cousin, ice cream, was born. Ice cream has more fat and air than gelato. Ice cream overtook gelato as the most popular frozen treat and gelato did not begin its public comeback until the late 1900s.
Gelato has become more popular in the last few years as more and more people have discovered its soft and silky taste and texture. Because it has less air, the taste of the main ingredient is a lot more intense in gelato than it is in ice cream. Both treats, however, are great on any hot, summer day.