I suppose the word “semifreddo,” which means “half cold” in Italian, and refers to a category of frozen desserts that aren’t truly gelato or sorbetto — ice cream or sorbet — comes from the fact that semifreddi (the plural) are usually eaten softer than true ice cream.
My HarperCollins Italian-English dictionary defines the word as “Chilled dessert made with ice cream,” which is not entirely accurate. Semifreddi are a type of ice cream you might say, but not dessert made with ice cream, although one might refer to a Neapolitan spumone, a molded frozen dessert composed of layers of several types of frozen dessert — what we and the French would call a “bomb” – a semifreddo.
John Mariani’s definition in The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink is more like it but not the entire story: “a custard or a mousse with a slightly softened texture that is eaten with a spoon.” He doesn’t mention that semifreddi are always frozen, and I disagree that crema caramela, tiramisu, and “desserts containing ricotta” are considered semifreddi. At least I have never seen the word applied to them, unless, of course, they were frozen.
There are several ways to make semifreddi. The dessert can be based on a classic custard, which is to say milk or cream and eggs cooked together until the eggs thicken the liquid, then lightened with beaten egg whites and/or whipped cream and frozen. Or it can be based on a cooked zabaione (also spelled zabaglione), which is technically a type of custard, except that the liquid is wine or a liqueur instead of milk or cream. A zabaione can be made with either whole eggs or egg yolks alone. In either case, it needs to be lightened with beaten egg whites and/or whipped cream. Or semifreddo can be based on a raw egg yolk and sugar base, as in the following recipe. There are also semifreddi based on what is called Italian meringue, which is egg whites beaten with hot sugar syrup. That, too, would be enriched with whipped cream or a cooked custard and whipped cream. The one thing that is not done in any semifreddo recipe I have ever read or made is churning the custard base and cream together as in true gelato or American ice cream.
I got the following recipe from Stefano Baldantoni, the chef at Acquario, a small, stylishly scruffy (and on the weekends regrettably noisy) restaurant at 5 Bleecker St., between Bowery & Elizabeth Sts. ( 212-260-4666). The Sicilian owners of Acquario are importers of fish and other ingredients from the Mediterranean and the menu is not entirely Italian because they like to feature their full line of products, which includes Spanish, Portuguese and North African goods. Stefano handles them all as if he was a native of all those places, but he is Italian, from Le Marche. If you go, order mainly fish dishes, including his spaghetti with tuna bottarga, which is salted and pressed roe. All he does is whip the bottarga in the blender with some great olive oil, parsley and hot pasta cooking water, then toss it with the spaghetti. Simple and fabulous! So is this semifreddo flavored with Amaretti di Saronno cookies, which he molds in a loaf, then serves in slices drizzled with both chocolate sauce and caramel sauce, garnished with an amaretto. When I made it I just scooped it into goblets and garnished it with a few of the miniature Amaretti di Saronno I happened to have on hand. You might also freeze it in individual ramekins or directly in stemmed glasses.
PS: There are several semifreddo recipes in my book, Naples At Table, including one flavored with Strega, and one made with coffee that, because it is served in small cups, is called a coviglia, which means “cup” in local dialect.
Semifreddo di Amaretti
Makes about 3 quarts
12 large eggs
1 3/4 cups superfine sugar (or process granulated sugar in the food processor until fine)
3 1/2 ounces Amaretti di Saronno (20 full-sized Amaretti cookies, which are packaged 2 to a twisted, colored paper)
1 quart heavy cream
Separate the eggs. Put all the yolks into a large bowl. Reserve 7 of the whites in another bowl, making sure the bowl is spotless and dry. Use the remaining 5 whites for something else, or discard.
Using the metal blade of a food processor (or a blender), grind the amaretti to a fine powder. If there are coarser bits among the fine, leave them. They add a little crunchy texture to the finished frozen dessert.
Add the sugar to the yolks and, with a wire whisk or hand-held electric mixer, beat until thick and light. Add the ground Amaretti and beat until well blended.
In a clean bowl, beat the cream into soft peaks and fold into the egg yolk mixture.
Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold them into the mixture.
Pour into a large plastic container or bowl and freeze, covered, until well set, at least several hours.
Serve scooped into individual dishes.