Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Strawberry Balsamic Semifreddo

My birthday is in December but sometimes I think I would have been better off if I'd been born in the summer. Our household tradition when I was growing up was that the birthday person got to pick what they wanted for dinner and dessert on their big day. My request: shish kabobs cooked outside on the grill (Is there an other way to cook shish kabobs?) and frozen strawberry pie, some wonderful frozen combination of (I'm guessing) strawberries, cool whip, and yogurt in a graham cracker pie shell. My menu never varied from year to year. Never. 

So the other night while scouring through my old cooking magazines looking for a dessert to make for a dinner party we were throwing, I found in the back of the July 2013 issue of Bon Appetit a recipe for plum semifreddo. Something about that dessert struck a chord. The base of the semifreddo was a combination of meringue and whipped cream with a red plum puree folded throughout and frozen in a loaf pan. I saw potential but, as good as I'm sure the original recipe is, I felt the need to tweak it (and when I say "tweak" I mean make something else entirely). 

I did a little research on semifreddos and found that there are many variations for the base: egg whites and whipped cream like in Bon Appetit;  egg yolks and whipped cream; creme fraiche and whipped cream; just whipped cream. The combination of creme fraiche and whipped cream drew my interest. I could just taste the silky tartness of the creme fraiche with the richness of the cream.

The next modification I made was to the puree. Plum was out. Strawberry was obviously the way to go. But not puree. And plain old fun-in-the-sun frozen strawberry chunks wouldn't do. I wanted the creamy base to be ribboned with sophisticated jammy strawberries.

The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book by Emily Elsen and Melissa Elsen contains a recipe for strawberry balsamic pie. This is hands down the best strawberry pie I have ever tasted. Standing alongside fresh strawberries are brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, Angustura bitters, and a few grinds of pepper. These supporting ingredients are the perfect bridesmaids in the marriage that is this pie filling: they do not stand out on their own taking up attention but perfectly accentuate the bride, I mean, strawberries. (Forgive the wedding metaphor, my brother just got married.) When baked, magic happens. Everything melds together. The vinegar and bitters loose their edges and help bring out the molasses flavor in the brown sugar; the pepper does not stand out in any way but it has to be doing something. The flavor of this pie is more complex than any strawberry pie I've tasted. This was the flavor I wanted in my semifreddo.

The last modification I made was to the shape. I could not get excited about the loaf shape. I didn't want to have to slice it to serve it. I hate slicing and serving! I love making single-serving size desserts, especially for parties, so I froze the semifreddo in muffin tins lined with cupcake liners.

My initial impulse was to serve them with graham crackers but instead I went with store-bought Meyer lemon cookies. And it was halfway through dessert that I realized that I had just made a grown up version of frozen strawberry pie. Oh well, every person to their taste!

Strawberry Balsamic Semifreddo (a.k.a. Grown-Up Frozen Strawberry Pie)
Makes ~14 standard muffin-tin sized serving. I found these to be a little small for some dessert lovers so if you're a huge fan of frozen treats you might want to consider using jumbo liners and making the servings a bit bigger. Or you can just make enough for seconds.

1 1/2 pounds of fresh strawberries, rinsed and quartered
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar (more or less depending on how sweet your strawberries are and how sweet you like it)
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 grinds of fresh pepper on the finest setting
1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup creme fraiche

In a medium saucepan combine the strawberries, brown sugar, and 1/4 cup sugar, balsamic vinegar, Angostura bitters, pepper, and salt. Cover and cook over medium, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until the strawberries release their juices. Uncover and cook another 8 to 10 minutes until the strawberries soften and begin to fall apart. (You can smash some of the bigger strawberry chunks with a spoon if you want but don't mash them up too much. Finding a big bite of frozen strawberry in your dessert is hitting pay dirt!) Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

With beaters whip the heavy cream and 3 tablespoons of sugar until soft peaks form. Whisk the creme fraiche to soften it and then fold it into the whipped cream until combined.

Line 14 muffin cups with cupcake liners. Add a small spoonful of the strawberry mixture to the bottoms of each liner. Fold the remaining strawberry mixture into whipped cream mixture just until there are large streaks throughout. Don't over mix! Spoon evenly into the muffin cups and smooth the tops so the filling is flush with the top of the liner. Cover with plastic wrap, and freeze until firm (at least 6 hours).

To serve, remove the tins from the freezer and allow the semifreddo to sit at room temperature for 5 minutes. Remove the semifreddo from the tins, peel off the cupcake liners, and invert them on to individual plates. Serve with cookies or alone.

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