This past Holiday season, upon opening a Christmas card from a family that I’d gotten to know shortly after moving to the area, I was surprised to discover a gift card to their favorite place to get Middle Eastern food. When Evan and I visited the little Lebanese restaurant, we were very strategic in placing our appetizer and entree orders and made sure to leave room for a dessert selection as well. On impulse, I decided on a chocolate molten lava cake, mainly because the menu described it as being served alongside homemade marshmallow cream. Little did I know, although the pair was absolutely delicious, it was neither the lava cake, nor my beloved marshmallow fluff that would turn out to be the star of the dessert (as well as the entire dinner experience). There was another component to this little dessert trio, and that was a dollop of an unbelievable pistachio and orange ice cream. Sounds strange, a chocolate “Turkish Coffee” cake served alongside marshmallow, pistachio and orange flavors, I know. But, when gathered onto one spoon, the combination of the different flavors, textures, and temperatures seemed as deliciously obvious as a pairing of spaghetti and meatballs.
This unforgettable dessert has very frequently been the topic of conversation between Evan and I since our visit to that restaurant. Clearly, I had to recreate this dish, but very delicately. There was no way I was going to tweak any of the perfect flavors in the slightest degree and risk compromising the divinity of this dessert. I decided, instead, to deconstruct the assembly of the cake. The result is what I’m calling a “semifreddo lava cake,” composed of a rich, spiced chocolate sheet cake wrapped around a pistachio-orange semifreddo creme. The “hot lava” took the form of a hot-fudge sauce and was drizzled atop the dessert, and with the obvious inclusion of my favorite marshmallow frosting, the reconstructed dish was complete and just as euphoric as we’d remembered it the first time.
Semifreddo Lava Cake
-Lebanese Taverna (Arlington, VA)
Mocha-Spice Sheet Cake
Adapted from “Mocha Cake,” Gourmet – August 2009
Rich and chocolate-y with a subtle hint of coffee and spice, this flourless cake stays fluffy, moist and soft when frozen… perfect for a semifreddo dessert.
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 teaspoons espresso powder
6 eggs, separated
½ cup granulated sugar, separated
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter and line a 13×9 inch pan. Prepare a double boiler fitted with a small glass bowl to melt the chocolate. Before turning on the heat under the double boiler, dissolve the espresso powder by stirring it into 3 tablespoon of hot water. Once dissolved, strain the espresso into to bowl of chocolate, turn on the heat, and melt the chocolate together with the espresso. Once almost completely melted, remove bowl from heat, stir to melt completely, and set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, beat together the egg yolks, ¼ cup of the sugar, the salt and the cardamom until the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 8 minutes. Beat in the cooled chocolate. In a separate bowl, beat the room temperature egg whites until they’ve reached soft peaks, gradually add in the remaining ¼ cup of sugar and continue to beat until the meringue just creates stiff peaks. Gradually and gently fold the egg whites in small batches into the chocolate mixture.
Spread the batter as evenly as possibly (without deflating it) into the prepared pan and bake for 12-14 minutes, or until it has puffed and is dry and springy to the touch. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cover the cake with two layers of damp paper towel. Let the covered cake rest for about 3 minutes, remove the towel (allowing the crispy top layer to peel away with it), and allow the cake to cool completely in the pan. Once the cake has completely cooled, loosen the edges of the cake with a knife and invert onto a large cutting board or sheet pan that has been lined with parchment paper. Transfer the cake (still covered with parchment atop the cutting board) to the freezer for 2-3 hours for easy slicing and assembly.
Adapted from Tim Nugent’s “Pistachio Semifreddo,” Top Chef
This semifreddo is simply divine and can stand alone as a truly delectable dessert. The flavors are amazing, but it’s the texture that makes this semifreddo so special. Make sure to whip each layer of ingredients carefully as directed and fold as gently as possible for a beautiful, airy-light finish.
4 eggs, separated 1 cup heavy whipping cream
½ cup superfine sugar, separated zest from half an orange
1/3 cup pistachio paste* 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
Prepare a double boiler fitted with a large glass bowl and, over medium-low heat, whip together the egg yolks and ¼ of the caster sugar. Continue to whip on a high speed until as much volume as possible has been achieved, about 5-8 minutes. At this point, remove from heat and, while still warm, add the pistachio paste and gently swirl it into the yolk mixture. Set bowl aside to cool.
In a large bowl, whip the room temperature egg whites until they’ve reached soft peaks. Gradually add in the remaining superfine sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks have been achieved. In small batches, gradually fold the stiffened egg white meringue gently into the yolk-pistachio mixture. In a separate bowl, beat the cold whipping cream to soft peaks, add in the orange zest and juice, and continue to whip slightly until they’ve reached medium-stiff peaks (do not over-whip or the cream can turn into butter). In gradual batches, gently fold the whipped orange cream into the fluffy pistachio mixture. Once the semifreddo base has been combined and poured into properly lined pan (as directed below), allow to freeze overnight before serving.
*I made my own pistachio paste for this dessert, but it actually ended up being quite a bit of work and not as easy as the recipe makes it seem. I would suggest just purchasing some pre-made pistachio paste and adjusting the amount of sugar in the semifreddo accordingly, as it may not be quite as sweet as my homemade paste turned out.
Hot Lava Fudge
Adapted from the Old Occidental Hotel’s “Hot Fudge Sauce,” -Muskegon, Michigan
1 cup superfine sugar 1/3 cup cocoa powder 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
-recipe yield: 1 ¾ cups sauce
In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour and unsweetened cocoa powder. In a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat, combine and stir together the milk, butter and vanilla just until the butter has melted. Add in the dry ingredients to the milk mixture, constantly whisking. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, until thick and smooth, about 5 minutes. Remove from stove and transfer to serving cup or gravy-boat to allow to cool. Refrigerate unused portion. Leftovers be reheated in a double-boiler or microwave as needed.
For the marshmallow fluff, make a half-batch of my favorite marshmallow frosting recipe.
Once the sheet cake has chilled in the freezer, remove it and peel back the top layer of parchment paper. Using a large loaf pan as a guide, trace onto the removed parchment paper the shape of the top, bottom, and two longest sides of the loaf pan. Cut the shapes out of the parchment paper and arrange them on top of the sheet cake. Using a sharp paring knife, slice the cake in the shapes of each of the parchment paper to (eventually) fit along the inside of the loaf pan.
Line the large loaf pan with two large pieces of parchment paper, allowing the paper to drape outside of the pan, creating “tabs” that can eventually be pulled up to remove the dessert from the pan. Handling the cake very gingerly, place into the bottom of the lined loaf pan the slice of cake that fits accordingly and gently press it so that it’s lying across the entire bottom of the pan. Place both long side pieces of cake into the lined loaf pan along the matching sides and gently press. Pour the semifreddo base into the cake-lined loaf pan and cover the semifreddo with the final slice of cake fitting the very top of the loaf pan. If the semifreddo doesn’t reach the top of the pan, slice this piece of cake to fit into the pan atop the semifreddo accordingly. Cover the loaf pan with plastic wrap and allow assembled dessert to freeze overnight.
To serve, remove the dessert from the freezer and lift the parchment tabs to loosen the dessert from the loaf pan. Place plate or serving tray on top of loaf pan and flip to invert the dessert onto server. Peel back the parchment paper. Cut dessert into slices, drizzle the hot fudge, and spoon a dollop of marshmallow fluff on or next to the dessert or slices. Serve immediately.