In the fall of 2015, my husband and I took a three-week trip of a lifetime to beautiful Italy. We started our adventure in Rome, then flew south to Sicily and north to the Piedmont region; we then journeyed east to Venice, west to the Tuscany region and concluded our extraordinary voyage in the Umbria region, of central Italy. We viewed some of the world’s most breathtaking masterpieces of art and architecture, and had the privilege of attending a spectacular Vivaldi Four Seasons concert in the heart of Venice. But, the focus of our travels was to sample Italy’s world-renowned cuisine. Hence we met up with six other couples in Palermo, Sicily to experience eight days of culinary marvels under the auspices of Morso Soggiorno, a unique travel company founded by chef and restaurateur Linda Plazonja and co-hosted by her husband Jonathan.
While every day with Morso Soggiorno was a revelation, among the highlights of our excursions were: a private class on Sicilian cooking with the Duchess of Palma in a 17th century palazzo: an unforgettable truffle hunt with guide, Ezio and his adorable, enthusiastic canine, Dora: a private tour of the Marchese di Barolo wine cellars culminating in a private truffle dinner and wine tasting; a one-of-a kind cooking class on Piedmontese cuisine in a feudal Castle with Davide Odore, one of the great chefs of northern Italy.
So many fond memories and a treasury of authentic Italian recipes made me realize that one or two columns would not suffice to share my experiences. Therefore, I decided to dub my 2016 columns “My Year of Italy”.
Since we launch “My Year of Italy” in February, the month of Valentine’s Day, I’m delighted to present Hazelnut Semifreddo with a Gianduja Ganache—a Valentine worthy dessert. I first sampled this exquisite confection in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. It was prepared by Chef Gianfranco Massolino at the Trattoria della Posta in Monforte d’Alba. Linda Plazonja of Morso Soggiorno was kind enough to provide me with a recipe for this rich and creamy dessert, which is a cross between an ice cream and a mousse that is studded with hazelnut praline. It is served with a luxurious gianduja ganache–a divine commingling of chocolate, hazelnut paste and cream.
Happy Valentine’s Day and Buon Appetito!
Hazelnut Semifreddo with Gianduja Ganache
Adapted from Linda Plazonja
Spray a baking sheet with Pam. Line 8 4-ounce custard cups with plastic wrap, leaving a 3-inch overhang. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and toast the hazelnuts in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, checking every few minutes to make sure they are not burning. Toast them to a golden brown color.
Place ½ cup sugar and 2 tablespoons water into a small, heavy gauge saucepan. Stir the water and the sugar together well, then bring to a boil over moderate heat. Simmer the sugar syrup for about 5 minutes or until a deep brown caramel forms. Use a wet pastry brush to brush down any sugar crystals that form along the sides of the saucepan. Make sure not to burn the caramel. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the hazelnuts with a wooden spoon, then immediately scrape the caramel/hazelnut mixture onto the oiled baking sheet and let the mixture cool. It will become hard.
You now have hazelnut praline. Break it into small pieces, place in a food processor and grind to a coarse powder
Place 1 cup heavy cream into a medium steel mixing bowl and beat until the cream holds stiff peaks, then refrigerate. Place the 6 teaspoons meringue powder and the 6 tablespoons water into a medium mixing bowl and beat until the mixture holds soft peaks, then gradually add the remaining ½ cup sugar. Beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks. Fold in the ground hazelnuts, then fold in the whipped cream. Spoon the mixture into the prepared custard cups. Cover with the overhanging plastic wrap, then place in the refrigerator for at least two hours or until the semifreddo is firm.
To make the ganache: place the Nutella into a medium mixing bowl. Heat the ¾ cup heavy cream in a small heavy gauge saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and immediately remove from the heat and pour over the Nutella. Add the instant espresso, vanilla and salt and whisk until smooth. Allow the ganache to cool to room temperature.
When you re ready to serve the semifreddo, remove from the freezer and unmold onto a dessert plate.
Ladle the ganache over the semifreddo, or drizzle some around the dessert plate.
Notes:* I use Wilton meringue powder in lieu of raw egg whites.