I liken this dessert to tiramisu, but without all of the carbs. Sans the traditional ladyfingers and with the espresso turned into ice, its luscious layers are more “light” and summer-like. I originally wrote this recipe in 2006 for an article on sorbet and granita for my James Beard-nominated column in Sauce magazine, and because it’s so simple and tasty, I haven’t tweaked it since. That said, feel free to play with the strength of your brew and the quantity of sugar in the cream to tune the parfait to your palate.

Yield: About 2 cups granita (or four 1/2-cup servings), plus extra mascarpone cream

Prep Talk: Make and cool the espresso mixture before freezing.


Espresso Granita:

  • 2 cups freshly brewed, very strong espresso or French roast coffee
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon zest, cut into long, thin strips by hand or with a channel zester (about 1/2 lemon)
  • 1 tablespoon Amaretto, Kahlua, Marsala, or another favorite liqueur (I prefer Marsala, as it’s more traditionally tiramisu-like.)

Mascarpone Cream:

  • 4 ounces mascarpone (aka Italian cream cheese), room temperature
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Marsala or another liqueur of choice
  • 1 cup heavy cream, cold
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
Luscious Layers
Luscious Layers Photo by Julia M. Usher


1 | Prep the espresso granita base. While the espresso is still quite hot, pour it into a small bowl and add the granulated sugar and lemon zest. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Let the lemon zest steep in the warm syrup for another 30 minutes and then strain the syrup to remove the zest. Stir in your liqueur of choice and then allow the syrup to cool to room temperature, or hasten the cooling process by setting the mixture in the fridge.

2 | Freeze the espresso syrup. No need for fancy equipment here. In fact, you’re better off without it. Once your espresso syrup has cooled to room temperature, pour it into a shallow (15 x 10 x 2-inch) baking pan and place the pan in the freezer. After about 30 minutes, use a fork to gently scrape any frozen syrup off the pan sides. Continue scraping and stirring until the ice flakes are uniformly distributed in the remaining syrup. Repeat this process every 20 to 30 minutes for about 1 to 2 hours, until you’re left with nothing but large, flaky crystals and no liquid. Freezing rates will vary: the deeper the liquid, and the higher the sugar concentration, the longer it takes.

Some cookbooks suggest “drying” the granita to enhance its flaky texture by leaving it in the freezer for another hour. Frankly, I’ve found no reason not to enjoy it immediately. Whatever you do, don’t let your granita sit uneaten for more than 1 to 2 hours. Prolonged freezing will cause the flaky crystals to cling together, and the delicacy of your granita will forever be lost. If monitoring the freezer isn’t your bag, you can solidly freeze the mixture to start and then shave it with a sturdy metal spoon, or give it a quick spin in the food processor. Sadly though, whatever time you save will hardly seem worth it once you try the sodden slush that results.

3 | Mix the mascarpone cream. In between stirs of the granita (above), mix the cream. Place the mascarpone in a medium bowl and stir in the Marsala (or other liqueur) to loosen it. (Loosening the mascarpone will ultimately yield a more lump-free cream, so don’t skip this step.)

Combine the heavy cream and powdered sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks have formed and then gently fold into the loosened mascarpone. Smooth out any mascarpone lumps with the back of a spatula. Do not over-mix or the cream may break and take on a grainy texture. Cover the cream with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until you’re ready to assemble the parfaits. The mixture is best used within a couple of hours while it is still light and fluffy. (It will stiffen considerably as it chills.)

4 | Assemble the parfaits. Spoon the cream and granita in alternating layers into wine glasses or other clear serving dishes to show off the pretty layers. For neater, more fancy placement of the cream, you can also pipe it into the dishes using a pastry bag fitted with a large (#827) star tip. Serve immediately.

Of course, all of you visual learners will want to check out my video version of this recipe: