Semifreddo is a classic Italian frozen dessert that’s a cross between ice cream and mousse. It is a sublime creation that is an unbelievably light dessert. The word literally means “half cold” or “half frozen”, to help describe its texture: soft, creamy, and velvety. When you first bite in, a semifreddo will feel soft and airy, but also rich in flavor with a heavenly creaminess. As it melts in your mouth, you experience an ethereal explosion of flavor!
Actually, you might even be surprised since so many people think semifreddo is more firm as is American ice cream, nor is it as dense and creamy as gelato. You have to taste to really experience the difference. Semifreddo is composed of a blend of rich, foamy egg yolks and heavy cream with enough sugar to prevent ice crystals.
Semifreddo can take many forms. But for this recipe I’m using both a meringue (whipped egg whites) and a pâte à bombe (foamed egg yolks). But I am preparing each of them separately. When you separate egg yolks from egg whites, it’s so much easier and faster to whip and cream.
What is Semifreddo?
My first experience preparing cold Italian desserts was during my high school home economics cooking class when my group of students decided that we were going to make this spectacular frozen Italian ice cream dessert recipe. You know how badly we want to be ‘popular’ at that age!
The idea of layering different colors (and thus flavors) of ice cream for Spumoni was so exciting and different than baking an everyday cake, pie or cookies. Through the years of learning how to cook Italian cuisine from my mother, my Nonna, and cooking courses, I continued to learn more about Italians’ love affair with and their speciality in sweet, cold, and often frozen desserts . . . including semifreddo!
Gelato, granita, frozen zabaglione, panna cotta, crème anglese, budino, tiramisu . . . and semifreddo. Each of these are familiar to Italians and to Italian foodaholics and connoisseurs. But originally, my cooking brain wasn’t thinking about those recipes this summer. Rather, I wanted to prepare one of my husband’s and my favorite recipes using the sweetest, juiciest peaches that are in abundance right now. My mind was set on making a fresh batch of our favorite peach ice cream by David Lebovitz in his cookbook, “The Perfect Scoop“.
Speaking of peaches in the American South (South Carolina in particular) . . . did you even know that Italy is the largest peach producer in the European Union? Italians sure do adore their fresh peaches!! Their love for peaches is deliciously shown in the various simple ways that they enjoy them: Sliced and served with sweet cream in the North, drizzled with balsamic glaze in Emilia-Romagna, while Sicilians fill their sun-kissed peaches with fresh sweetened ricotta and bits of dark chocolate.
How to Make Semifreddo
Basically, semifreddo is prepared by gently folding a cold, sweetened whipped cream into a thick, glossy Italian crema pasticcera (egg custard) that can be flavored with literally anything you can think of: fruit, chocolate, nuts, vanilla, caramel, nougat, and more. Semifreddo is frozen until it is firmly set and served semi-frozen.
Step #1: Whip heavy cream with sugar until medium soft peaks form, being careful not to over-whip; avoid hard, stiff peaks. When finished, cover the whipped cream with plastic wrap over the top of the bowl and place it in the freezer while preparing the next steps of the custard.
Step #2: In another metal (don’t use glass) medium sized bowl, whisk the egg yolks together with salt and sugar. Place it on top of a saucepan of simmering water. Heat the eggs, whisking constantly.
Step #3: Remove egg mixture from the water bath pan. Add flavor extracts. Using a handheld or stand-up mixer, whip the egg mixture until pale yellow and thick.
Step #4: Once the egg mixture is thick, gently fold the cold whipped cream in. Take ⅓ of the whipped cream and fold it in, then repeat this 2 more times, working 3’s. You want to mix the ingredients completely without deflating the whipped cream.
Step #5: After folding all of the egg mixture and whipping cream together, line plastic wrap all around a bread loaf pan about 9 X 5″e, leaving about 3″ hanging over each side of the pan. Pour the mixture into a pan.
Step #6: Cover the semifreddo with the plastic wrap hanging over the sides of the pan. Place in a freezer for a minimum of 8 hours. Ideally this should be frozen overnight!
Step #7: Before serving prepare, cut up the fruit or toppings you will use. Remove the semifreddo from the freezer. With the plastic wrap, pull it out of the loaf pan and discard the plastic wrap.
Step #8: Take a pretty serving CHILLED platter and place it upside down on the top of the semifreddo and flip it over. Work fast and avoid melting. Garnish with fruit and/or toppings of choice.
Optional serving method: With a round ice cream scooper, take nice round scoops of semifreddo and place in clear martini glasses. Use toppings of choice again. But this time, add crumbled amaretti cookies, biscoff cookie biscuits, and slivered almonds.
Semifreddos can also be served on top of a cake; on top of a cookie crust base, with sugared graham cracker crumbs, or with a sweet cookie crumb base.
Use a Water Bath or Double Boiler
You need to use a double boiler or a water bath to cook the egg yolks on the stove without turning them into scrambled eggs. If you use a stand-up mixer such as a Kitchen Aid, crack the egg yolks in the mixing bowl and place it in a larger pot filled with 2 inches of simmering hot water. Avoid letting the mixing bowl touch the pot or the hot water. One suggestion is to make a small ball of aluminum foil to rest the mixing bowl in the pot and keep it from touching the bottom of the pot.
When the bowl doesn’t touch any part of the larger pot, then the bowl won’t overheat! Instead you want the steam from the hot water to flow freely around the eggs to warm the yolks slowly and safely. As the water evaporates, so does some of the natural water in the eggs. This makes the egg yolks more foamy resulting in a creamier semifreddo. Every step is intentional and makes a huge difference in Italian cooking. Make sure that the water doesn’t boil away; add more water, a little at a time if needed.
Once the egg mixture reaches 170°F, take the bowl to a stand-up mixer, using the wire whisk attachment, and whip the yolks to a thick, pale yellow foam. This is the most important stage, so don’t rush the process. Instead, rely on visual cues; the exact timing will vary depending on the power of a given mixer.
If you’ve gotten to know your stand-up mixer as I know mine, then you know whisking egg yolks takes only 8 minutes (some variation is normal in other brands).
By the time the mixture is properly whipped, it will be cool enough to fold in the refrigerated whipped cream. At this point I like to flavor the whipped cream with a few drops of almond extract and vanilla extract.
Tips for Making Semifreddo
- Always use very cold bowls, spoons, or any cooking tool. Your ingredients need to be very cold during preparation of semifreddo as well — nothing at room temperature. Semifreddo is delicious, but melts easily.
- Whip the heavy cream ahead of time and store it in the fridge until time to prepare the semifreddo.
- When the egg yolk custard is whipped, fold in in ⅓ of the cold whipped cream at a time, so each addition is nicely incorporated. Over-mixing can make semifreddo hard and dense, so work very gently and slowly.
- If you use a bread loaf pan, it’s critical key to line plastic wrap all over the bottom and sides of the pan leaving a few inches hanging over each side. Wrap the loaf up tight with the plastic wrap. This makes it an easy breeze to remove the semifreddo from the pan. The extra plastic wrap is pulled over the semifreddo so that it is completely covered with plastic wrap before freezing. When ready to serve, just lift up the plastic and place the dessert on a work surface to slice.
- NOTE: Plastic wrap offers a more complete liner, but it wrinkles the surface of the semifreddo. Parchment can be trickier work with for lining a loaf pan, but it will keep the exterior of the semifreddo more smooth. Placing fruit on top will hide the wrinkles.
- Place ⅓ of the egg yolk – whipped egg whites mixture into the prepared (plastic wrap) bread loaf pan. Then layer some of the fresh peach cubes on top. Repeat this 2 more times.
- Semifreddo needs to set in the freezer for at least 8 hours, but the most preferable option is to freeze it overnight– or longer. Contrary to its name, the semifreddo is, in fact, fully frozen; it’s just that the air and sugar in the mixture keep it soft and smooth, giving it a creamy consistency that feels as if it were half melted.
- You can even keep it in the freezer for 2 days ahead of your dinner/event! Semifreddo is perfect for a wonderful make-ahead treat for a party, get-together, or celebration. To me, it’s far better to embrace the semifreddo’s potential as a make-ahead dessert than desperately rushing to make and serve it all in one day.
- Make sure you pop a lovely serving platter in the freezer, too; getting it nice and cold will maximize the semifreddo’s life at room temperature. I recommend using the most minimalist of designs on your platter so the focus highlights the semifreddo itself.
- To unmold, simply invert it onto the chilled platter, and tug on the plastic or parchment to pull it free. Then, leaving the parchment or paper in place to protect the semifreddo, pop it back into the freezer until it’s time to serve.
This delicious dessert looks like a professional created it and will dazzle your guests!
How to Serve Semifreddo
Ultimately, a semifreddo is like an ice cream sundae in the shape of a loaf. It’s piled high with your favorite toppings of fresh fruits, nuts, chocolates, caramel, whatever your sweet tooth desires!
The majority of time it’s served in loaf form which makes the semifreddo easy to slice and shows off any layer of fruit or ingredients peaking out from inside.
Remember to keep the final step of toppings SIMPLE . . . don’t over do. In this semifreddo, I used fresh freestone peaches macerated with just enough sugar to draw out their juices, and added a drizzle of locally grown honey that my bee-keeper neighbor gives us. I garnished it with color bursts of ruby red raspberries. That was all it needed.
My husband and I both agreed that it would be great to add some crunch to the recipe. So crush some slivered almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts all over the top. You can also add more crunch from a handful of almond contucci broken up as well as one of my all-time favorites, biscoff cookie biscuits crumbled up. You can also buy the Italian cookie ‘straws’– YUM!
Of course semifreddo can also be scooped like ice cream. We like it when it is scooped out and placed in clear martini glasses and then garnished with whatever toppings pair well with the flavor of the semifreddo! This presentation feels just a bit more special too!
Another lovely presentation idea is drizzling chocolate over the top as well as all around the serving platter, along with some chopped nuts of your choice. And as in this recipe, don’t forget to drizzle on some honey if it pairs well with your other choices. Fruit glazes/sauces are also delightful! Raspberry, strawberry, peach, etc, the sky’s the limit here!
Semifreddo is a great party dessert, because it can stand at room temperature for a minute or two before slicing, which means you relax and enjoy your guests who are oooh-ing and ahhh-ing over the beautiful platter presentation of Italian semifreddo. Straight from the freezer, if you find that your semifreddo is a bit brittle or crumbly, then giving it that extra minute or two of standing at room temperature will help slice it like a dream.
PIN FOR LATER! Thank you!
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1-⅓ cups sugar, divided
- 8 large/jumbo egg yolks
- ½ tsp. sea salt
- 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp. almond extract
- 1 cup peach jam
- 1-½ cups peaches, cut into ½" cubes
- 2 - 4 Tbsp. fresh local honey
- GARNISH: 2 medium - large peaches, skins on, thinly sliced
- GARNISH: 1 cup fresh, whole red raspberries
- Line a bread loaf pan with plastic wrap; leaving at least 3 inchs of overhanging plastic wrap on all sides.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachmentk whip the cream with 1/3 of the sugar until it reaches medium peaks. Transfer the whipped cream to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Clean dry the mixer bowl and whip.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, salt and remaining sugar. Place the bowl over a medium pot of simmering water and heat, whisking constantly, until the mixutre rea ches 170 F degrees on a thermometer, about 5 - 6 minutes.
- Transfer the egg mixture to the bowl of the mixer, add the vanilla and almond extracts and whip until the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 5 or more minutes.
- Gently fold the whipped cream into the egg mixture until well combined. Do not over fold.
- Pour 1/3 of the semifreddo mixture into the prepared breadloaf pan. Drizzle witha thirde of the peach jam and use a skewer to swirl it through the semifreddo. Scatter a thrid of the diced peaches on top. Repeat 2 more times until you've used up all the ingredients.
- Cover the semifreddo with the excess plastic wrap overhanging on all sides of the pan. Freeze for a minimum of 8 hours, but best to freeze overnight.
- Place a chilled serving platter facing down on top of the loaf pan. Slowly flip over the bread loaf pan and the semifreddo. Remove the semifreddo from the pan by lifting it up and out with the extra plastic wrap. Discard the plastic wrap.
- In a medium bowl, toss the peaches with a little bit of "Fruit Fresh" to help reduce browning of the fruit.
- Pile the freshly cut peaches on top of the semfreddo. Drizzle with the honey.
- Serve immediately and enjoy!
- Buona Apetito!
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