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In summers past, the star attraction of family get-togethers hosted by my mum-in-law would be homemade icecream hand-churned in a traditional ice-cream bucket. The steel-girded wooden pail that looked straight out of Mother Goose produced the most divine icecream - refreshingly light and richly creamy all at once. When, tragically, the ancient gadget finally called it a day, we realised it was impossible to retrieve that culinary experience. Home-made ice-cream without the power of those hand-cranked paddles was too heavy and lacked the uniqueness of bucket ice cream.
It was during the hunt for a recipe to recreate that billowy, voluptuous smoothness without the help of an ice-cream maker, that I discovered semifreddo.
This incredibly good, incredibly easy dessert is Italian in origin (it means, literally, semi-frozen ). I encountered it first in Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef. I confess, even though I've rarely found a Jamie Oliver recipe that doesn't work, I had serious doubts about this one: it just seemed suspiciously simple and quick. The basic recipe involves nothing more demanding than having three bowls ready, whisking egg yolks, sugar and vanilla in one;beating egg-whites into a snowscape of soft cragginess in another;and whipping double cream into a cushion of air in the last. After that (and Oliver promised it would take no more than four minutes), you just have to fold in all three, pour into a bowl or mould of your choice and put in the freezer for six hours.
So despite Oliver's tempting assurance of it being a "great substitute for ice-cream", I remained unconvinced. But one summer, with the temperature edging to 40 and the humidity hitting an all-time high, we had guests coming to dinner and I knew that with the menu I had settled on - chilled soup, salads and cold chicken-and-ham pie - I would be unwilling to sweat it out in the kitchen for very long. I desperately needed a minimum effort recipe for a cool and refreshing dessert that would still be something special. I realised it was time to risk the semifreddo.
I followed Oliver's recipe for the basic version and in less than ten minutes I had a large bowl of what The Naked Chef assured me would emerge six hours later from the freezer and have everyone "groaning with pleasure". And miraculously, it did just that. The ice-cream scoop, sliced through the magnolia-white mound facing just a frisson of resistance. And the first spoonful was pure heaven: a chemistry of taste and textures that placed this dessert at the culinary crossroads of creamy hand-churned ice cream, airy mousse and delicate parfait.
Over time, I've experimented with several versions of this dessert, starting with Oliver's wonderful variations that include folding in smashed up pralines. And along the way I've realised that this delightful ensemble just revels in diversity. You can flavour it with a fresh fruit puree of your choice (mango does very well). Or experience a burst of sensations on your palate by incorporating into the classic vanilla semifreddo ingredients like chopped prunes lusciously plumped up in a honey-cognac bath, rough-chopped almond scented macaroons, fragile shards of meringue, this season's sweet lychees soaked in vodka - the list is curbed only by your imagination.
Or just make the classic and serve fresh fruits on the side. If you want to primp things up a bit, sprinkle the fruit (mangoes, peaches, apricots) with sugar and place under a hot grill for a few minutes till the fruit acquire a golden caramel tan.
The USP of this dessert is that it's perfectly poised between rich creaminess and impossible lightness. And the secret to accomplishing this is to work as swiftly as possible when preparing it so that all the air beaten in remains trapped when you put it into the freezer. This is easily achieved by making sure that you have your utensils ready to use as soon as you start working with the ingredients. Additional flavours should be at the ready-to-add stage so that they can be folded in without delay. And of course, don't forget the cardinal rule when folding in air-firmed egg whites and cream - always use a metal spoon, not a wooden one.
Semifreddo can be frozen heaped in a serving bowl;or put into a cling-film lined loaf tin and unmolded just before serving. Keep in mind that this dessert has to be enjoyed at that precise point of semi-frozenness. This means that you can't have it outside the freezer for as long as it takes to serve a long queue of guests since it would melt in this weather. What I do is to divide the mix into two smaller serving bowls or loaf tins for freezing. This way, I finish one lot fairly quickly and then move on to the other one that's waiting in the freezer.
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