Like Romance, Semifreddo takes work. But if you make key components a day or two ahead, you’ll hum with pleasure in the final mixing.
Semifreddo means “half-cold” in Italian, but there’s nothing mezzo mezzo about this glorious dessert. It’s a both-and affair, caramel sweet and cocoa bitter, alternately cream-mellow and zest-zingy; and it offers a perfect crunch-yield ratio. Just like our romance, carissimo.
And like romance, it takes work. But if you make key components a day or two ahead, you’ll hum with pleasure in the final mixing. A boon to serenity: the dessert must sleep in the freezer overnight, so no last minute kerfuffles. Another boon: This semifreddo offers cake-y satisfactions but is effortlessly gluten-free.
Semifreddo’s distinguishing lightness comes from air. Most recipes perfuse a custard with billowy whipped cream and voluminous egg whites—a Swiss meringue (egg white and sugar whisked over simmering water) or Italian meringue (you pour hot sugar syrup over egg whites while madly beating them).
Yum. But safe?
I double-checked with baking guru Rose Levy Beranbaum, whose Cake Bible is now in its 50th printing, and she confirmed my suspicion: neither technique cooks the egg whites to 160 degrees, so salmonella may lurk. She recommended shell-pasteurized eggs (as distinguished from bottled whites) with ¼ teaspoon of cream of tartar for each white.
What Rose says works, works. Alas, a tour of my local market produced no such eggs, but an idea hatched as I headed home. Why not whip up French meringues, bake them until dry, and use them to line the semifreddo mold, adding crispness as well as air? Thus:
Vive la France Semifreddo 2014 (for Ricardo)
Photo by Nancy Weber.
[Editor’s note, January 5: Inspired by a response from a reader who couldn’t imagine taking 3 days to make a dessert, Nancy challenged herself to make a 22-minute version. (Scroll down to the Comments section below for the method.) By using readymade pudding, whipped cream, and almond butter she got preparation down to 17 minutes. Result? Both she and her Ricardo found the quickie surprisingly good, but not as spectacular as the scratch version. She says, “The different textures and flavors in the over-the-top semifreddo create an alchemical excitement. It’s worth the effort. The garnishes are just for the camera, though. A couple of raspberries or the glistening glazed plum slices are all you need.”]
Several days—or more—before you need it
Make orange sugar by processing the grated zest of 2 washed and dried organic oranges (blood oranges preferred) with 2-1/2 cups organic or natural crystallized sugar (blond)
Make ginger sugar by processing ½ pound crystallized ginger pieces with 2-1/2 cups sugar.
Refrigerate in glass jar. Add a vanilla bean if you like. These sugars are also great for oatmeal topping, muffins, glazes, marinades . . . .
Up to three days ahead
1) Raspberry ginger jam: In a small, heavy nonstick pan, stir and simmer 2 TBS ginger sugar and 2 TBS water. Add 2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen, and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid is gone. Transfer to strainer. Refrigerate (saving strained liquid for another use).
2) Almond praline: In a small, heavy nonstick pan, stir and simmer ½ cup natural sugar and 2 TBS water. Swirl, stirring only occasionally to prevent burning, until golden. Add ½ cup almonds (blanched or with skins) and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid turns a deep mahogany. Add 2 tsps unsalted butter, stir, and transfer onto baking sheet lined with Reynolds Non-Stick Foil. Allow to cool and harden. Break into chunks and grind to powder in processor. Reserve in glass jar at room temp.
Shortcuts: With store-bought raspberry preserves and almond brittle, you’ll still craft a fab semifreddo (though nothing smells better than simmering berries and caramelizing nuts). Make just one exotic sugar or combine, but please don’t leave them out: their mouth-brightening flavors make scrumptious kisses.
Equipment for putting it all together
1 or 2 baking pans 17 x 13 or so, lined with Reynolds Non-Stick Foil
Sturdy medium saucepan with double-boiler insert or heatproof bowl that fits inside it
Small, heavy nonstick sauté pan such as Anolon
Handheld electric mixer
Mixing bowls—1 and 2 quarts
Wooden paddles or spoons (check for onion family odors!)
spring-loaded ice cream scoop
Assorted storage containers and lids
deep pan for ice bath
2 heart-shape freezer-safe pans with 2-1/2 cup capacity (or loaf pan)
for the meringues
½ cup confectioners sugar
½ up almond flour
2 TBS unsweetened cocoa
2 TBS mini semi-sweet chocolate chips (Valrhona, Enjoy Life, or Ghiradelli)
2 TBS orange sugar
½ cup fresh egg whites (4 or 5 eggs—reserve yolks, covered, for custard)
½ cup superfine/caster sugar
for the whipped cream
2 cups organic heavy whipping cream
2 split and scraped vanilla beans
2 TBS superfine / caster sugar
2 TBS Irish whiskey
for the ganache swirl and glaze
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup half and half
½ pound bittersweet chocolate chips
2 tsp sweet butter
for the custard
2 cups half & half
2 split vanilla beans
2 liquid ounces egg yolks (see above)
½ cup natural sugar
½ lb chocolate chips plus 2 TBS chips held aside
2 TBS ginger sugar
2 TBS Irish whiskey
Measurements: All quantities in my recipes are expressed as two (2) or one-half (1/2). This rule abets memory, mood, & accuracy. “Two liquid ounces of egg yolks” is weird, but it works even if you buy mixed sizes of eggs.
Process first 5 ingredients into a powder.
Beat egg whites until frothy; gradually add superfine sugar and beat until foam becomes soft peaks.
Add chocolate-almond powder all at once and lightly incorporate with spatula.
Scoop onto foil-lined pan, alternating rows of six and five meringues. Set aside to dry for 20 minutes. Turn oven to 200.
Whipped cream (1)
Thoroughly wash and dry beaters. Wrap in plastic & refrigerate.
Combine cream, sugar, & vanilla beans in quart bowl; cover & refrigerate.
Bring cream and half & half to a boil. Add chocolate and stir gently. Stir in butter. Transfer to covered container and let sit at room temp.
Put on rack in middle of oven and check every ½ hour until crisp all over (may take 2 hours).
Whipped cream (2)
Gradually building up beater speed, whip cream until semi-firm. Stir in whiskey, cover, & refrigerate. Wash beaters.
Bring half & half and vanilla beans to a simmer, stirring occasionally, over boiling water.
Meanwhile, beat egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale.
Pour a little of the hot cream into egg mix, stir, and return all to the pot. Cook over water, stirring always with a wooden spoon, until it starts to thicken and an instant read thermometer says 175. Add the ½ pound chocolate chips. Pass through strainer into clean heatproof bowl. Stir in ginger sugar. Set carefully into ice bath to cool quickly. Stir often. Otherwise keep covered with plastic pressed down onto custard (to prevent skin). After ½ hour, add reserved chocolate chips.
You’ve done the hard part. Now be patient & let everything cool. Refrigerate custard (but not ganache, which you need pourable) When meringues are crisp (except for a slightly chewy middle), remove from oven.
Prepare heart molds by lining with foil, carefully pressing it against the sides, without tearing, & leaving a generous overhand. Clear space in coldest part of freezer.
On countertop array cold custard, cold whipped cream, & room- tem ganache, raspberry jam, praline powder, & meringues.
As if you were making a marble cake, aiming to leave streaks rather than amalgamate, lightly cut and fold whipped cream and custard. Cut in praline and then raspberry. (Piano, piano.) Using just ½ the ganache, place spoonfuls around the edge of the beautiful mix. Zigzag across the bowl to pull lines of ganache into play. Toss once or twice with spatula. Heap into molds. Smooth. Cover. Freeze.
On a dark, rain-slicked night in 1973, at a sudden roadside café north of Florence, my brother and I had our first, formative slice of semifreddo. It had no garnish and needed none, for it was a Paul Klee mosaic unto itself, no two bites the same.
Feel free to offer your semifreddo naked. Valentine’s Day, after all. Then again, it’s a day of excess, lace and ribbons and velvet and all things red, so feel free to gussy it up.
Either way, take it out of the pan (the foil eases the stress) and transfer to a chilled plate. Smooth any wrinkles with a hot, dry off-angle spatula. If you like, glaze it with the saved ganache and refreeze, lightly covered.
If your heart desires, consider adding at service time: ganache dipped strawberries with mint stems; thinly sliced plum (I use a Japanese mandoline, very carefully) glazed by baking at 200 on a caster sugar-sprinkled sheet pan; curly crisps of apple, thin slices baked at 200 on foil (no sugar); fresh raspberries; glazed kumquats (roll them around in a sugar syrup in that heavy little sauté plan); caramelized hazelnuts; glazed blood orange; and—if you happen to score a star fruit at Integral Yoga—glazed slices of that precious fruit.
To drink with the ultimate dessert?
My favorite dessert wine from California—and the critics have been hurling gold medals at it: Navarro Winery’s cluster select Late Harvest Reisling, 2011.
If you’re inclined toward bubbly, trust me on this: A Portuguese sparkling wine–brand name Sexy, label outrageous magenta—is a refined, sublime, champagne-style wine that will knock your socks off. I tasted it at the recent Mohegan Sun WineFest: wow! Available online and in 10 states.
Photo by Nancy Weber.