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Ice Cream's Ephemeral Cousin
Semifreddo, a Dessert That's Rich Yet Light

By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Last summer, after my old ice cream machine conked out at an inopportune moment, I did what any resourceful Italian would do: I made a semifreddo instead.

I have not missed my ice cream machine since.

A semifreddo is a frozen spoon dessert, something akin to ice cream, only different. When I was a child, the name, indeed the entire concept, of this dessert, which translates as "half-cold" or "half-frozen," confounded me to no end. How, I wondered, could something be only half-frozen? When I encountered it in Italy on a restaurant menu or in a gelateria and asked about it, I was told by grown-ups that it was "like ice cream." But if it was like ice cream, why wasn't it called ice cream? Was it only half as good as ice cream? I was suspicious and stayed away.

A trip to Sicily, which is famous for its frozen confections, changed my mind a few years later. There, I came upon a semifreddo called the gianduiotto, named after my favorite Italian oblong-shaped chocolates. This one, however, was a lot bigger: about the size of a harmonica rather than a bite-size nugget. The outside was a splintery shell of dark chocolate. Its velvety chocolate-hazelnut interior, studded with bits of toasted nuts, was softer, lighter and airier than ice cream. I fell in love.

I've since learned that semifreddo is kind of a catchall term that refers to a range of frozen mousses that, like ice cream, are often (but not always) custard-based. Traditional semifreddi also contain enhancements such as crushed cookies, chopped nuts and/or liqueur: ingredients that don't actually freeze; hence the name.

Unlike ice cream, a semifreddo requires no churning in a machine. Instead, air is incorporated by gently folding the custard together with whipped cream or egg whites or both. The result, after it has been frozen and spends a few minutes at room temperature, is at once light and satisfyingly rich. It is less substantial than ice cream, more ephemeral. It melts more quickly on the tongue, a little like cotton candy or a snowflake.

A semifreddo has plenty of other assets to recommend it. I especially like its shape-shifting qualities: You can freeze it in a ring mold, a loaf pan or just about any other decorative vessel, and in shallow bowls or goblets. You can add a cookie crumb base and turn it into a frozen cake, to be decorated with piped whipped-cream rosettes or sliced fresh fruit. You can stuff it into brioches or cream puffs. In short, you can make it as simple or as fancy as you please.

Because a semifreddo must be made in advance so it can chill down and firm up, it's a great dessert to serve to guests: No scrambling around at the last minute. You need only give it about five minutes to defrost slightly before unmolding it and dishing it out.

And, as with ice cream, the flavor possibilities are endless. I usually let the seasons be my guide: fresh berries in summer; chestnut puree, pumpkin or maple syrup for fall; chocolate and hazelnut or citrus in winter; mascarpone in spring. Keep it smooth and simple, or fold in crushed meringues or biscotti, chopped toasted nuts, grated chocolate; minced dried fruit creates a lovely studded effect.

Each of the three accompanying recipes is a good way to get to know semifreddi: a little different from one another yet all simple to make, with excellent results. The apricot version is from my forthcoming cookbook, "Big Night In" (Chronicle Books, 2008). It relies on a classic egg custard for a base, with pureed dried apricots and whipped cream folded in.

The strawberry-yogurt semifreddo is a recent creation that uses two of my favorite ingredients, fresh strawberries and Greek-style yogurt. To ensure a creamy finish, use thick, whole-milk yogurt rather than the more watery low-fat or nonfat products.

The wine-spiked Italian egg custard known as zabaglione forms the base of my semifreddo made with vin santo (an Italian dessert wine) and crushed amaretti. These crumbly, almond-flavored cookies can either be folded into the custard or, as I prefer, sprinkled over the dessert.

Alexandria cookbook author Domenica Marchetti last wrote for Food about quick soups.

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