Lemon-Basil Italian Ice | Sugar-free dessert recipe

I’ve loved Italian ice since my very first taste of it at Mario’s Italian Lemonade stand in Chicago’s Little Italy back in 1984. I was blown away by the combination of icey, lemony, sweet, and real peel. It’s incredibly refreshing on a hot summer day.

Now that I’ve given up sugar, store-bought Italian ice (like pretty much all frozen treats) is off the menu. But don’t despair. I’ve come up with a recipe that’s super easy to make, fun, and beautiful to serve. At the first taste, I was transported back to Taylor Street on Chicago’s West side. This would be fun and easy for kids to make.

The renovation: The original recipe called for sugar, so I’ve substituted agave syrup. This recipe was adapted from Better Homes and Gardens. I have turned it into agranita, which is a technique I explain below.

Lemon-Basil Granita (Italian ice)

3 C.    filtered water
¾ C.   agave syrup*
½ C.   slivered basil (or mint, lavender, lemon verbena, or rosemary blossoms)
2 t.     finely shredded lemon peel
2 T.    lemon juice (use organic or local lemons if you can)

In a medium saucepan bring water and agave syrup just to a boil, stirring until syrup is dissolved. Remove from heat and cool for 10-15 minutes. Add the basil or other herbs and let stand for 30 minutes. (If using rosemary or lavender blossoms, just stir them in and let it stand, no sieve necessary. They look really pretty in the granita.)

Pour through a fine mesh sieve, discarding basil. (I have a container in my freezer, when it’s full it goes into my compost pile.) Use a Microplane grater to get just the yellow part of the lemon peel. It’s an amazing tool.

Stir the lemon peel and juice into the syrup. Pour into a shallow baking dish. (The larger the better; it needs to fit into your freezer and sit flat.)

After about 45 minutes, pull it out and rake it with a fork, breaking up any clumps. Continue to freeze and rake about every 30 minutes until you have fluffy snow-like ice. Serve at once, or store in an airtight container.

You can also use an ice cream freezer to make more of a slushy/Italian ice consistency. However, if you don’t eat it all, it will probably freeze solid, unlike the granita, which will stay perfect in a lidded container.

Other flavor combos:
Lemon juice, zest, and rosemary blossoms
Orange juice and zest with mint
Grapefruit juice and zest with lemon verbena
Let me know what your combinations are!

* A note about agave syrup: It’s the one thing that has saved me, having to give up sugar. Agave syrup is made from the agave cactus. It’s a naturally occurring sugar with a lovely light taste, much lighter and more neutral than honey. I am told it’s suitable for diabetics because it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels the way other sugars do. See this page on giving up sugar for more details.