What is it about frozen treats and chilly sweets that turn our willpower to mush and make our senses float with inspiration?
Whether you want to eat at a restaurant, visit a roadside stand, or make your own, icy desserts are the flagship sweets of summer dining. There are almost as many variations of frozen treats as there are flavors—old-fashioned ice cream, gelato, iced milk, regionally popular Italian water ice, frozen custard, frozen yogurt, sherbet, sorbet, granita—and on and on.
Then there is semifreddo.
” ‘Semifreddo” translated directly refers to something that is semi-frozen,” explains Phil Pyle, an owner/chef at Fair Hill Inn where “freddos” regularly appear on the dessert menu. “This term, of course, is not exactly true,” he says. “All semifreddos are frozen completely.”
The reason they tease us as being “semi-frozen” is their mouth feel generated by the ingredients used together or independently—whipped cream and/or Italian meringue, which uses whipped egg whites that are fully cooked after being blended with melted sugar.
“Whipping incorporates air—lots of air relative to protein and/or fat,” Pyle says. “You basically ‘freeze’ more air than matter, and your mouth tells you it is only semi-frozen.”
Local gelato king Ryan German visited Spain as a college student in order to learn Spanish. “It was in Toledo that I had my first gelato,” he says. “There was almost no gelato being sold in America then. I switched my major to business and went back in the spring of 1997 to Grenada.” More gelato. “It occurred to me,” he says, “that gelato would be a good product to use to brand a restaurant.”
After touring Italy to study the art of Italian ice cream in big cities and small villages and to buy the proper equipment, German opened his hugely popular Caffe Gelato on Main Street in Newark in April 2010. Today, the restaurant offers a galaxy of gelato flavors for takeout or after dinner.
German’s gelato is also sold locally in supermarkets and, although he has his own catering business, other caterers buy gelato from him, particularly for weddings and other celebrations.
And if there are dozens of varieties of frozen desserts and dozens of flavors—at Woodside Farms near Hockessin this summer I saw a group of kids sampling bacon-flavored ice cream and vigorously debating whether it was glorious or “gross” as I waited for my cookie dough—there are also more frozen-dessert machines for the home as there are fanciful coffee-making machines.
My wife bought me an ice cream machine for Christmas—a Cuisinart ICE-21—that prepares ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sorbet. It is amazingly simple to use, and it makes delicious ice cream—incredibly smooth and frozen to just the right temperature. (I’m not a great yogurt fan, and I’ve yet to try making sorbets.)
With the batches I’ve made so far, I’ve also learned a few simple things. You need stronger flavoring in cold dishes than you do in warmer ones; fresh or candied fruit should be used (dried fruit is too gummy and not as tasty as it is in baked desserts); and ice cream is best when it’s freshly made. Refreezing it and eating it later diminishes textures and flavors.
Texture is also key to gelato, German says. “Gelato has lower butterfat, which surprises a lot of people, and it is served about 10 degrees warmer than ice cream. It’s denser, and it quickly melts on your tongue, and the flavors just burst out.”
He recommends that people who make their own at home experiment with flavors—his latest is crème brulee toffee—and he also recommends eating it as freshly made as possible and not deep freezing it first.
“For home cooks, the best path to making semifreddo is to use whipped cream as a base, Italian meringues can be tricky, and a modest amount of sugar,” Pyle says. “About a half cup sugar to a liter of whipped cream works when incorporated with your choice of flavorings. Cherry, strawberry, or blueberry purees during the early summer months, when these fruits are in season, make ideal selections.
“Please note that these fruit purees should be very concentrated reductions and should constitute not more than 25 percent of your total semifreddo,” he warns. “If you increase the ratio any more than that you will end up with something more akin to ice milk—a Philadelphia favorite to be sure—but not a semifreddo.”
Fortunately, most frozen dessert machines come with instruction books, as I’ve discovered that a good frozen dessert cookbook is hard to find, and I’ve looked through quite a few.
Remember, you need a method and a madness. Once you have your method down pat, your frozen-sweet madness will emerge as you search for just the right combination of flavors.What is it about frozen treats and chilly sweets that turn our willpower to mush and make our senses float with inspiration?
Summary: Adapted from Bon Appetit • March 2009
Serve with shortbread cookies.
Summary: Adapted from Cuisinart Recipe Book
Add raspberry or other favorite fruit sauce or topping when serving.