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Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Piedmont's signature chocolate-hazelnut flavor, whipped into an easy frozen treat.
This wonderfully retro frozen dessert is just as suited for a night in as it is for entertaining -- it's cozy, elegant, and can easily be made in advance.
In a 1987 interview (I did say retro) for the New York Times, Marcella Hazan said of semifreddi, “When you're thinking of a dessert for a party, they are more attractive to serve than plain ice cream because they can be unmolded and sliced.” Plus, unlike ice cream, semifreddo doesn't need any churning or special gadgets (just a candy thermometer). Think of it more like frozen mousse, or in this particular version, frozen cake.
More: A recipe for no-churn ice cream? We're down with that.
Italian semifreddo is often compared to (and made like) what the French call parfait. But, true Italian semifreddo is made by folding whipped cream into Italian meringue (egg whites whipped with boiling hot sugar syrup). French parfait is made with pâté à bombe, which is made from egg yolks whipped with boiling hot sugar syrup.
Some semifreddi are made with even simpler methods, like whipping melted chocolate and cream until fluffy and then freezing it -- talk about an easy dessert. But, according to purists, a real semifreddo requires true Italian meringue. The extra effort involves making a sugar syrup with a candy thermometer, but don't let that put you off; it gives the semifreddo a wonderful texture and a stable base that you won't get otherwise.
You can flavor a semifreddo with whatever tickles your fancy. Traditional flavors include liqueurs, chocolate, fruit, nuts, or even nougat (and did someone say salted butter?). It can be sliced -- or scooped, if it's softer -- and garnished with sauce (caramel, chocolate, magic shell -- why not?) or fresh fruit for a bright and summery dessert.
This semifreddo is inspired by the delicious combination of chocolate and hazelnut that Piedmont is so well known for; it's the home of Nutella and, even further back, Gianduia (invented in 1806 in Torino). Eating it is a little like taking a bite into a frozen Gianduiotto, the chocolate based on Gianduia's signature flavor.
More: Semifreddo, straight out of Brooklyn -- here's the recipe.
Because of the ground hazelnuts and melted chocolate, this semifreddo holds its shape really well, remaining sliceable for quite some time after removing it from the freezer. These ingredients also give it a cake-like crumb, but since it's frozen, the overall taste remains refreshing and cool. For extra flavor, feel free to drizzle the semifreddo with some chocolate sauce and garnish it with chopped toasted hazelnuts.
It's a very simple recipe: Combine the melted chocolate, cream, and ground hazelnuts; whip until fluffy; fold in the Italian meringue; and let it rest in the freezer. For the Italian meringue, I followed some wonderful advice from Poires au Chocolat. Please go the (little) extra effort to grind your own toasted hazelnuts rather than using pre-ground hazelnut meal -- you will be rewarded with better flavor and texture.
Serves 8 to 10
2 egg whites
1/3 cup (140 grams) sugar
1/4 cup (about 90 milliliters) water
1 3/4 cup (400 milliliters or 13 1/2 ounces) cream
2 1/2 ounces (75 grams) milk chocolate, chopped
2 1/2 ounces (75 grams) dark chocolate, chopped
1 cup (100 grams) whole raw hazelnuts
Photos by Emiko Davies