It's been lamentably long since my last visit to Rome, and all my memories of it have taken on that misty, dreamy quality when you're not sure whether it's a true remembrance or one half-embellished with your fantasies of what really happened. Although, Rome is so very old and layered in memory that I wonder whether this happens to everyone who passes through. As you walk down the cobblestone streets or gaze at the magnificent monuments, it's hard not to think of all the hundreds of thousands of people who have done the same over the centuries. You're just the latest in the unending chain of people doing the same thing in the eternal city. The person throwing coins in Trevi Fountain? The person buying flowers in Campo de' Fiori? The person gazing skyward at the frescos in the Sistine Chapel? I'm sure I did all those things, just as I'm sure so many have done so before me, and will after me. It's easy to turn my trip into some sort of "Stereotypical Greatest Hits of Rome" after all this time.
There are a few memories that stand out as I riffle through them: seeing Piazza Navona for the first time, lined with buildings in all shades of terra cotta and sienna and umber. The train ride from Rome to Florence, watching the countryside uncurl outside the window. Running into an acquaintance from work at the Uffizi (now that memory, I know I didn't make up!) Learning how to order my favorite flavor of gelato (stracciatella).
And then there is the memory of one hot afternoon wandering around Florence, eyes overstuffed with art and feet protesting another museum foray. We stopped at a cafe to take una pausa, whereupon my companion declared that now was the perfect opportunity to try that immortal Italian liqueur, limoncello.
Of course, limoncello is classically meant as a digestif, preferably on a balmy summer night next to the Amalfi coast. But it's a very fine companion for a lazy afternoon as well, and as tourists, we at least had the excuse of ignorance. The limoncello arrived in tiny glasses, chilled and frosty white. The almost shockingly yellow liqueur looked like distilled sunshine. I took a sip and let that frozen shard of sunlight unfurl itself, tingling, inside me.
Years have passed since that trip to Rome, and just as long since I've had a sip of limoncello. But when I found myself in possession of a bottle of it the other day, it was as easy as falling into dream to take a sip and remember that dusty summer afternoon and my first taste of limoncello.
Now, as with any other new foodstuff that I encounter since I've gone to pastry school, I find myself pondering, how could I use this in my baking? The answer revealed itself in a most serendipitous manner when I came across a recipe in Delicious magazine for a strawberry and limoncello semifreddo – the name itself positively wafts summer.
What can be confusing about semifreddo, as I've detailed before, is that it's really more of a class of dessert than one specific recipe. That's why when you go researching semifreddo you're likely to find a whole range of techniques, from Italian meringue to pâté à bombe to crème anglaise. You have semifreddo that is studded with nuts and nougat, formed into a terrine, and served in slices. You have semifreddo that is frozen into cups and eaten with a spoon, like a mousse. The only consistent qualification for semifreddo, it seems, is that is must be light and fluffy – to the point of gossamer insubstantiality.
The point of the various techniques that go into making semifreddo is to incorporate air into the mixture, which is what gives the final product its fabulous lightness. Since there's no ice cream machine doing the heavy work of aerating, all the trapped air must come from the whipped cream, the whipped eggs, etc. This recipe falls on the simpler, breezier side: there's whipped cream and whipped egg whites which are folded into a just-whisked egg yolk and sugar mixture. The result is very soft, creamy, and light – my ideal semifreddo.
Even if you have an aversion to spirits, there's no need to shy away from this dessert. The limoncello gives the semifreddo a dreamily smooth, sublime lemon flavor, without the bright tartness usually imparted from the fruit. It's like a cross between lemon curd and lemony whipped cream – what I imagine to be the perfect density of sunlight-dappled clouds. The swirl of sweetened strawberries adds a rich fruitiness to ground the etherealness of the semifreddo.
Although the alcohol in the limoncello will help the semifreddo from becoming rock-hard in the freezer so quickly, it's still best to take the semifreddo out about a half hour before you plan to serve it, to give it time soften slightly (if you make individual cups, like I did, it may need even less time – don't let them melt!)
Strawberry Limoncello Semifreddo
adapted from Delicious Magazine
about 8-10 servings
1/2 cup (110 g) sugar
2 pints strawberries, hulled and roughly chopped.
1/4 cup (60 ml) limoncello
4 large eggs, separated
2 1/2 cups (600 ml) heavy cream
Place a 2 1/2 quart heavy ceramic dish, or individual glasses of your choice, in the freezer to chill.
Combine 1/4 cup of the sugar with 1/2 cup water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and then simmer for 3 minutes until the sugar has all dissolved and the mixture has thickened.
Add the strawberries and stir to combine. Take the saucepan off the heat and use a fork to mash the strawberries into the sugar syrup. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the limoncello, then let the strawberrie cool to room temperature.
Combine the egg yolks and the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar in a bowl and whisk together until pale and thickened. Add in the remaining limoncello and stir to combine.
Whip the cream in a stand mixer on high speed until soft peaks form.
Whip the egg whites in a clean bowl just until soft peaks form – do not overwhip.
Carefully fold half of the whipped cream into the egg yolk mixture to lighten it up. Fold in the rest of the whipped cream, taking care not to deflate the cream too much.
Fold in the egg whites, again taking care not to deflate the whites.
Pour the mixture into the pre-frozen dish or cups.
Stir in the strawberry mixture. Because the semifreddo mixture is so light, I find the strawberries tend to sink to the bottom and if there's too much liquid it also starts deflating the mixture. If your strawberries are in a lot of liquid, you may want to strain it before you add to the semifreddo. Pour them in gently and quickly, and don't overmix into the semifreddo.
Cover with plastic wrap and freeze for at least 5 hours or overnight. Take out of the freezer about 30 minutes before serving, less for individual portions.