I’ve been a little obsessed with watermelon lately. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s sweet, refreshing, and healthy! And it reminds me of the summer days of my childhood – complete with watermelon seed-spitting contests. So in addition to having fresh sliced watermelon on hand, we made a watermelon salad with feta cheese, mint, and a dash of olive oil (see below), a watermelon granita, and the subject of today’s post: Sicilian watermelon pudding.
I was first inspired to make watermelon pudding by a Food52 recipe from Emiko Davies’ weekly food column on regional Italian cooking. Then I realized I had seen a watermelon pudding recipe in my Sweet Sicily cookbook and in Epicurious’ Italy issue as well. Pretty soon I was gathering all of the watermelon pudding recipes I had seen, comparing them, and making notes.
I decided to make the pudding for a party in honor of my cousin Allison’s recent wedding. I figured it would be well received by my Italian (though not Sicilian) family and would make a cool, healthy dessert for the hot weather we were expecting. I also thought it was timely since watermelon pudding (or gelo di melone in Italian) is served during the Festa di Santa Rosalia – patron saint of Palermo, Sicily – celebrated on July 15, just four days after our family party. Santa Rosalia saved the city of Palermo from a plague in 1624, and she has been honored with a procession on that day ever since.
In researching watermelon pudding, I learned that it was invented by the Arabs who arrived in southwestern Sicily in the 9th century. They brought with them watermelon, pistachios, sugar, and jasmine and used the starch from Sicilian wheat to thicken the pudding. Watermelon pudding represents what I love most about Sicilian food – the blending of cultures and traditions.
The pudding is deceptively easy to make. It requires only watermelon juice (from pureed watermelon), cornstarch, and sugar. Traditional Sicilian recipes tend to use chocolate chips (to resemble watermelon seeds!), cinnamon, and jasmine or rose water for additional flavoring with chopped pistachios or squash preserves as a garnish. I kept my version simple, using only cinnamon and chocolate chips and omitting any garnish.
I should note that watermelon pudding isn’t as rich and creamy as more traditional puddings; it’s somewhere between a pudding and a fruit gel. I like it because it has the bright fruitiness and subtle sweetness of watermelon with a little spiciness from the cinnamon. Enjoy this tasty summer treat!
Sicilian Watermelon Pudding
4 cups watermelon juice from 1 large watermelon (with seeds removed, roughly chopped into 1-inch pieces)*
1/2 cup sugar (or to taste – up to 1 cup – depending on the watermelon’s sweetness and your preference)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2/3 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon rose water or 2 tablespoons jasmine water
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I used mini chips)
1/3 cup diced squash or citron preserves for garnish
3 tablespoons unsalted pistachios for garnish
jasmine flowers for garnish
special equipment: individual custard cups, ramekins, or mason jars OR a 6-cup mold
First, halve or quarter the watermelon and cut the flesh into small chunks, removing seeds as you go. Put the watermelon chunks into a blender and puree until smooth. Remove the puree from the blender and stir in a fine-mesh sieve set over a large bowl or pot. You want the juice to be thin and without any clumps. Once all the juice has been extracted, discard the remaining watermelon pulp. Repeat this process of pureeing and straining until you have 4 cups watermelon juice.
Combine the watermelon juice, sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a pot. Whisk until smooth, making sure that there are no lumps of cornstarch. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, whisking frequently, until thickened and glossy. For me, this took 10-12 minutes. You’ll know you’ve achieved the right consistency when the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Remove the pudding from the heat,** add the jasmine or rose water if using, and cool to room temperature. Once fully cooled, add the chocolate chips and stir to distribute evenly.*** Pour the mixture into ramekins or a mold, whichever you’re using.**** Refrigerate until fully chilled, at least 4 hours. Serve in custard cups/ramekins, or if using a mold, invert onto a plate, garnish and enjoy!
*Just shy of half of one large watermelon yielded 4 cups of juice for me.
**Remove the pudding from the pot and put in a large bowl; this will speed up the cooling process.
***Don’t do as I did and stir the chocolate chips in too soon or your chocolate will melt. Just as delicious but not quite as aesthetically pleasing.
****Spritz the mold with water. This isn’t necessary if you are setting the pudding in ramekins as you will serve them in their containers.