"Semifreddo is the pastry evolution of gelato (ice cream)," says Marino Marini, chef, culinary investigator and author of articles and books on many aspects of Italian cuisine. In fact, both gelato and semifreddo belong to the category of iced desserts. However, while gelato is prepared out of a mixture of eggs and milk, semifreddo arises from the combination of whipped – half whipped, that is – fresh cream and a flavour component, which can be chocolate, hazelnut, nougat, fruit, confectionery or pastry custard (crema inglese or crema pasticciera, in Italian).
So, despite the confusion that the name 'semifreddo' might generate – 'half cold' in English, 'medio frío' in Spanish – we are talking of a fully frozen preparation. They taste different; gelato contains water which creates that frozen sensation to the palate, semifreddo doesn't; semifreddo has a softer texture even when it´s eaten at a temperature below freezing.
"As an iced dessert semifreddo has not a long history," states Marini, who is currently the librarian of the International School of Italian Cuisine in Colorno, Parma, in the Northern Italy. He adds: "What we describe today as semifreddo has, in reality, a very short history; it was born around the end of the 19th century and it is clearly an evolution of the French parfait." The legends about French parfait and semifreddo being very popular during the Renaissance have no historical corroborations. Gelato certainly was trendy, but not semifreddo, and certainly, as we will see further on during the Tour La Vita è Dolce, gelato was invented in Italy and then travelled to France (with Catherine de Medici and then with her sister Marie). In contrast, the first published recipe of a French parfait is dated 1869 (Parfait au café), while in Italy, recipes of semifreddo start to appear at the end of the first decade of the 20th century. "The chef of Maria Luisa, the Duchess of Parma at the beginning of the 19th century, knew only about gelato and sorbet," adds Marini.
The French parfait (perfect) was given this name, because the balance of its ingredients was – and is – very important. Only the perfect equilibrium between sugar, liquid, fat and solid parts allows the attaining of that texture typical of parfait and semifreddo – hard while also creamy. Parfait and semifreddo have other common characteristics. They contain one part of whipped cream and one of custard and the flavour component. The basic difference between the two is that French parfait contains a pate a bombe (sugar syrup at 120 C added to whipped egg yolks), while semifreddo all'italiana contains Italian meringue, which is quite different from the normal one made with egg whites montato a neve – whipped to stiffness – with icing or granular sugar and then dried in the oven at a temperature inferior 110° C, without humidity. Instead the Italian meringue is egg white, montato a neve, over which sugar syrup at 120 C is then poured and mixed: the result is a more rubbery and shiny.
The Italian meringue enhances even more the sensation of the creaminess of semifreddo and it is much more elegant. "In this sense," says Marini, "Italian semifreddo is more perfect than French parfait." For this reason it requires a lot of attention and is a challenge even for the professional chef and/or pastry chef, let alone the home cook. Master pastry chefs, manuals and books recommend a scientific approach to the making of semifreddo. To achieve a correct balance of the ingredients the proportions should be as follow: Sugar 20-27%; fat 15-24%; solids 5-10% (the total of solids should be 42-55%); proteins 5-7%.
A last note: zuccotto, the famous refrigerated dessert, born in Tuscany, possibly at the time of Bernando Buontalenti, the architect who perfected some techniques to make gelato, is not a semifreddo. "It contains some Genoese sponge," says Marini, "which has nothing to do with semifreddo."