Wayfarer Pastry Chef Aleishe Baska Breaks Down the Semifreddo
As we edge our way into summer, consider the semifreddo. This dessert's name translates to "half frozen" in Italian, and it's a dish that's not too hot, nor too cold. Therefore, according to Wayfarer (101 West 57th Street, 212-691-0030) pastry chef Aleishe Baska, it's just right. "I love their versatility -- they can be fruit, nut, or chocolate-based," she explains. "I usually describe them as frozen mousse because it best captures their light and airy texture." Here, we gain more insight from Baska on the Goldilocks of desserts, in addition to how she puts her own spin on the classic.
How is a semifreddo classically made? There are a few different ways to make a semifreddo. In Italy, they are traditionally made by folding together equal parts gelato and whipped cream. This is a great method to use if you're looking to make a semifreddo quickly. The second method is to create a custard base or crème anglaise and then fold that cooled mixture with whipped cream. The final method, which is how I make the semifreddo at The Wayfarer, is to create a pâte à bombe (a mixture of fruit puree, sugars, whole eggs, and egg yolks cooked together and then stabilized with gelatin), which is cooled and folded with whipped cream and then frozen.
What is most important to keep in mind when making a semifreddo? For me, there are two things that are equally important to keep in mind: balance and temperature. When you're making a semifreddo, you want to make sure that it doesn't become overly sweet, which can easily happen when you're working with chocolate or a sweet fruit puree. I usually start with a relatively small amount of sugar as compared to the amount of fruit or chocolate I'm using and then adjust up from there as necessary. At the same time, you don't want an overly acidic semifreddo or one that has too much whipped cream incorporated into it, or the fat from the heavy cream will coat your mouth and prevent you from fully tasting the focal ingredient of the semifreddo. That's why it's so important to taste as you go when working with new ingredients or recipes -- the more you taste, the more likely you are to be happy with the final product. Salt is a key ingredient, as well. A small amount of salt in the custard or pâte à bombe will generally enhance the primary flavor component of the semifreddo.
As for temperature, it's important to cook the custard or pâte à bombe first to a high enough temperature, and then, once the mixture is properly cooked, to cool it down suitably before folding in the whipped cream. Cooking the base is important both because you're working with raw eggs, so you want to make sure the eggs and yolks are fully cooked, and also because eggs thicken the liquid as they cook. If you don't give your base enough time to properly cook and thicken, your cooled base won't have enough body to maintain the aeration from the whipped cream. Similarly, if you don't cool the base enough before folding in the whipped cream, the hot or warm base will deflate the whipped cream as you fold it in, and the finished product won't have the mousse-like texture that makes a semifreddo such a delight to eat.
Why did you decide to offer a semifreddo at The Wayfarer? I love semifreddos! I feel that they are a great choice for people who want a lighter option for dessert but don't want to limit themselves to sorbet or a fruit plate. A semifreddo is also a great way to add diversity to a dessert menu -- a lot of desserts tend to be very rich and can come off as heavy as a result (even if they aren't). A properly made semifreddo has so much air incorporated into it that even if you're working with a very rich ingredient like peanut butter or milk chocolate, the end product will still be light. I also wanted to include a semifreddo on the menu because it offers a great opportunity to utilize fresh and seasonal produce.
How and why did you decide to make a passion fruit semifreddo, in particular? A lot of the decision was based on the rest of the menu at The Wayfarer; we're an American Seafood Grill and the menu really reflects that -- we have an extensive raw bar, crudos, and tartare, as well as several fish and shellfish offerings. When I thought about what I would want to eat for dessert after a meal focusing on fresh seafood, passion fruit seemed like a logical fit. It's naturally acidic, which is a quality that is, for my palate, complementary to almost all seafood. Our semifreddo is served with a tropical fruit salsa -- we toss mango, pineapple, kiwi, and papaya in a cilantro-lime syrup. The fruits in the salsa are less acidic than the passion fruit, so it both balances the semifreddo and provides a nice textural contrast.
How is the passion fruit semifreddo prepared? We combine passion fruit puree, sugar, corn syrup, whole eggs, and egg yolks in a large bowl. We cook this mixture over a water bath, whisking constantly, until it reaches at least 140° F. This ensures that the eggs are pasteurized and also that the mixture is thickened properly in order to maintain the proper structure. We take the bowl off of the water bath and whisk in bloomed gelatin, which further stabilizes the base. That bowl then goes into an ice bath for as long as it takes to cool the mixture to room temperature. Once the base has cooled, we whip heavy cream to just slightly more than soft peaks and then fold it into the cooled base in three additions. After all of the whipped cream is folded into the base, we pour the final product into a silicone mold and freeze it overnight to fully set. If you don't have molds, you can always use a loaf pan or any other container -- just be sure to line it with plastic wrap before you pour in the base to make unmolding easier.
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