Easy Lemon & Lavender Semifreddo
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This post is brought to you in collaboration with the lovely people at BC Egg.
All opinions are my own.
Easter is right around the corner and I’ve got sunny delicious desserts on my mind. I’ve also got a new baby, kids in school, and a million things on the go, so realism is on my mind. So when I started to develop a semifreddo cake for BC Egg, I quickly realized that I also wanted to see if I could come up with a recipe that would give you a similar sort of dessert in just a fraction of the time. Enter the blender.
I’m really starting to develop a bit of an obsession with figuring out how to make desserts with my Vitamix blender, and that’s largely thanks to eggs. I absolutely adore lemon curd, but it was never something I made all that often in the past. Traditional methods all involve using a double boiler (along with lots of stirring) in order to get the eggs to cook without scrambling, and while that’s not too tricky to do, it’s still not something you can just throw together in a few minutes. But high speed blenders are capable of performing egg magic. You can literally dump all of the ingredients for a lemon curd into the blender, turn it up to high, and wait 5 minutes – and voila, dessert. And it’s not like some poor substitute for the ‘real thing’ either – it’s perfect. I used it to make this blueberry lemon curd, which is as visually striking as it is tasty. The reason that high speed blenders can do this centers on two facets of their operation: 1) the blades are strong and fast enough to thoroughly combine ingredients while whipping a lot of air into them, and 2) the mixture becomes hot enough to cook the eggs and denature the proteins, thus setting the dessert. But curds aren’t the only aerated egg dessert out there – sabayons (or zabagliones), custards, some ice creams, and semifreddos also rely on the emulsifying and setting properties of eggs to create a creamy, airy texture. And while I’d probably be perfectly happy just making variation after variation of curd, it doesn’t exactly make for riveting blogging. I wanted to investigate something new, and I love a bit of experimenting in the kitchen, so I decided to see what other egg-based desserts I could work up in the blender. Semifreddo – an frozen Italian dessert combining whipped sweetened eggs and cream – turned out to be a perfect candidate. I wasn’t sure if this would work out at first; unlike curd, the semifreddo egg base doesn’t use butter, and the cream has to be whipped and folded in separately. Fortunately I didn’t have to worry about anything – the blender yields an airy and very intense custard-like base that folds very smoothly into the whipped cream. After having carefully planned and crafted all of the steps for this recipe’s semifreddo cake sibling post, this dessert was almost hilariously hands off.
Now if you don’t HAVE a high-speed blender, you might think that this recipe isn’t for you, but rest assured that it’s still quite simply made with a double-boiler. In fact, if you have a stand mixer, you don’t even have to separate any eggs. If you’re rocking a hand mixer only, you can still make this recipe, but you’ll need to budget a bit more time. Check out the recipe notes below for more details.
If, however, bright and springy desserts have got you in the mood for a bit of light Easter reading, I hope you’ll follow me on a little diversion. I want to talk about the Easter Bunny.
Have you ever wondered why a full moon looks so big when it’s on the horizon? The truth is fascinating – your brain is lying to you. Or, more accurately, it’s contextualizing the familiar site of the moon in a different way (i.e. against the more proximal and measurable aspects of our landscape). The moon simply looks bigger because we have something to compare it to. This seems bizarre at first blush – maybe even illogical. And yet there’s no sensible alternative explanation. We know that the moon is, of course, not actually bigger from minute to minute.
Context and perception can interact in some pretty fascinating ways. What we perceive to be different, strange, dangerous, delightful, or disgusting often has more to do with the way in which we contextualize things, rather than the properties of those things themselves. We like to think that we’re open-minded and generally perceptive, but our brains are great at ignoring things when they strike as familiar or unimportant. If you don’t believe me, check out the selective attention test. There’s a whole world of psychological and neurological research related to this, but I’m going to forgo talking about how the brain works for now, and instead look at a great example of something that’s been normalized by context, despite the fact that it’s objectively complicated and subjectively more than a little bit bizarre: the Easter Bunny.
The Easter Bunny is weird. If this was a Wikipedia page there’d be a little superscript there with , but it’s my blog and I’ll editorialize if I want to. The Easter holiday/celebration is an unusual amalgamation of cultural practices, religious celebrations, and modern commercialization, and the Easter Bunny is a delightfully quirky manifestation of that cultural hodgepodge. We like to poke fun at this from time to time, laughing about the idea of a magical bunny that hides chocolate to commemorate the death and rebirth of Christ, but things are actually even odder than they seem at first blush. The Easter Bunny is so complex and interwoven with different cultures across time that we don’t fully understand where it came from or why we’ve embraced it.
The topic of Easter culture is so complex that I’m at risk of falling down a bit of rabbit hole. (Hey-o!) Because of this, I’m not even get touch the equally complex topics of Easter eggs, or of Easter itself. There’s something called the Easter controversy, for example. It sounds like it might have something in common with coffee-cup-centered “War on Christmas” style outrage, but it’s actually a calendar-centered debate that’s been a thing since the 2nd century. Pope Victor I attempted to excommunicate a group of early Christians based on arguments over the date of Easter and the connection to the timing of Passover. Touchy stuff, apparently. Anyway, let’s make a pass over (Hey-ooooo!) this list of some of the quirkier aspects of the origins and celebrations of our favourite lagomorph confectioner (or confectionary, I suppose).
Why a Rabbit?
First of all, and because I’m a biologist, I need to get something straight right out of the gate: technically we started out with an Easter hare, which morphed into an Easter rabbit or bunny. This actually matters because hares and rabbits are very different, albeit closely related animals. We could split hares (HEY-O!) further and talk about the fact that there are numerous species of rabbit and hare, but let’s just agree that we’re talking about long-eared, fuzzy, hoppy fellas. Now, there are a lot of possible reasons that rabbits have become the de facto Easter creature in most of the English (and German) speaking world (Australia being a notable exception – they have an Easter bilby, which is delightful), but we don’t really know for sure. Fortunately, the possibilities are pretty entertaining.
Here’s what we know for sure – the idea of an Easter hare first shows up in Southern Germany in the 16th or 17th century. Francis Weiser’s ‘Easter Book’ references a German source from in 1572 that says “Do not worry if the Easter Bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, we will cook the nest.” * The Osterhase (Easter hare) is definitely mentioned in the 1688 by Georg Franck von Franckenau, though the concept itself still had not gained much traction beyond a small region of Germany. For whatever reason, the idea became more widespread during the 18th century, and was subsequently carried to the Americas (and elsewhere) by German immigrants. But this still doesn’t address why it is that a hare (or rabbit) in particular came to both symbolize Easter and, even more strangely, lay and/or deliver eggs. We may never know for sure, but there are some very interesting possibilities found in the traditions and folk beliefs of Christian and Pagan peoples of Europe.
The 8th century Christian theologian and historian Bede wrote of an Old English goddess named Ēostre, for whom a month in the spring (now April) was named, and whose name was now used to refer to Paschal (i.e. Easter) celebrations. Despite periods of skepticism, the etymological connection between Ēostre and Easter is fairly commonly accepted today. The problem comes when we bring rabbits into the mix. Working in the 1874, Adolf Holtzmann specifically addressed the Easter hare in his book Deutsche Mythologie. He found the notion of the Easter hare “inexplicable,” though he speculated that the hare may have been a companion animal to the goddess Ostara. Ostara, for what it’s worth, is the name that Jacob Grimm (of Grimm’s fairy tales) gave to a speculative pan-Germanic deity that he posits may have existed (thereby explaining Bede’s account of Ēostre). Unfortunately, these layers of speculation have been misquoted and misrepresented as fact over the years. Stories of Ostera turning a bird into an egg-laying hare start to show up in print in the late 19th century, but it’s unclear how old the stories are, or if they’re even particularly well translated from oral tradition. This link goes into lovely detail on the subject, if you’re curious – but it’s fair to presume that the ‘Ostera bunny’ is not terribly ancient.
Another possible reason that the hare has become connected to Easter comes to us from Christian tradition combined with a bit of inaccurate zoology. Rabbits and hares have been connected to the Virgin Mary because of the belief that they symbolize both virginity and fecundity. Seems like a bit of a head-scratcher, doesn’t it? The fecundity of rabbits is of course famous – ‘breeding like rabbits’ is a well-known expression after all. Rabbits can produce young incredibly quickly, and are even capable of a something called superfetation, in which they can become pregnant with a second clutch of young while already pregnant. That’s a lot of rabbits. You’d be fair for wondering how the heck virginity enters into all of this. Well, it seems that many European traditions held that the rabbits and hares were hermaphrodites, and were able to become pregnant without mating. The notion of rabbits being capable of virgin birth made for an easy connection to Mary. For what it’s worth, virgin birth isn’t a thing in mammals (at least biologically speaking – I’m not here to weigh in on the miraculous aspect), but it is a thing in some lizards. If medieval scientists had known, perhaps we’d have an Easter lizard. At least they actually DO lay eggs.
*I haven’t yet read this book yet, and I wonder if the book it cites is a dubious reference. This story/line has been copied and pasted all over the place with very limited citation, and doesn’t show up in more serious scholarly work. I’m going to try to track it down and figure this one out. RESEARCH, yo.
But Why Does It Bring Eggs?
Eggs themselves have been connected to both Pagan and Christian traditions. They symbolize rebirth, renewal, and fertility, and have likely symbolized these concepts for countless millennia. But we’re not asking ‘why Easter eggs?’ (because that’s a whole other subject) – we’re asking ‘why the heck does a rabbit bring them?’
As mentioned above, it’s possible that the egg-laying hare is somehow connected to a story of Ēostre (or Ostera) turning a bird into a hare. That hare may have then been able to lay eggs because Ēostre took pity on it and gave it the ability, or because it was like ‘pfft, you can’t tell me what to do, I’m still a bird.’ Either way, the story (if it’s been translated accurately) might explain the German Easter hare and it’s traditions, though it may not be old enough to lay the subject to rest. Another possible explanation, and one that I must say I quite enjoy, is once again connected to some bad biology. Hares, unlike rabbits, don’t have their young in burrows. Instead, they form a depression or area of flattened grass called a form where they birth and care for their young. But a beautiful bird called the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) also happens to nest in a similar grassy habitat, making a similar sort of nest, and at the same time of the year. It’s thought that this gave rise to a common European tradition that hares laid eggs. If that sounds silly, remember that it was also commonly believed throughout Medieval Europe that salamanders were born from fire, and that they consumed fire in order to sustain themselves. So maybe an egg-laying bunny isn’t such a stretch.
Given that this recipe started as a simplified version of another (also delicious) recipe, it should come as no surprise that the whole thing is meant to be pretty straightforward and easy to do. If you have a high-speed blender (e.g. a Vitamix) you’ll find the whole thing very self-explanatory. But if you’re looking to tackle this recipe without one, I’ll give you a few helpful tips.
Because the blender both mixes and cooks the eggs, you’ll need to replace it with a standard double-boiler method. You still want to whip the cream first and set it aside. After this, you’ll need to set up a double boiler or bain marie (I use a large metal bowl over a large pot filled 2/3rds of the way up with water and placed over low/medium heat on the stove). Combine all of the semifreddo ingredients in the double boiler, stirring more or less constantly to avoid scrambling the eggs, until the mixture reaches 165°F (74°C). This should take about 5-7 minutes over hot-but-not-boiling water. Allow the semifreddo mixture to cool a bit, then whip at high speed until roughly quadrupled in volume and well-aerated. Gently mix in the whipped cream, and finish as for the standard recipe above.
I used a stand mixer of all of my whipping, but if you’re using a hand mixer you might find that you get better results from the semifreddo by separating the yolks and whites, whipping the whites separately, and using the yolks in the double-boiler portion of the recipe. Combine everything at the end carefully to avoid deflating the mixture.
You can swap out the sugar for honey in the semifreddo to create a very different, somewhat bolder and more floral dessert. I used a strong honey to make this lemon and lavender semifreddo cake, and the difference in character between the two recipes is quite dramatic.
The basic idea of the semifreddo itself is quite simple and open to interpretation. Feel free to experiment with fruits, chocolate, etc. Likewise, you can keep the semifreddo fairly simple (vanilla, lemon, etc.) and use more flavourful toppings like stewed fruit, candied nuts, or caramel. Have fun.
One final note – lady fingers aren’t necessary to make a semifreddo, but I included them here because I like the cake-like effect, flavour, and utility that they bring to the recipe. By placing them on the surface of the semifreddo (i.e. the part that will become the bottom), they act as a nice dry barrier between the semifreddo and the plate. This makes the whole thing melt slower when served. The room-temperature semifreddo isn’t terribly wet, so the lady fingers don’t soak up much moisture and stay fairly dry as a result. I like this, but if you want them to turn out a little softer and more cake-like, you can soak them in a little bit of cream before pressing them into the semifreddo, or let the whole thing sit in the fridge a bit longer before popping it into the freezer. You can also omit the lady fingers entirely in order to make the recipe gluten-free, or replace them with another type of cookie/biscuit layer.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a single serving (1/10th portion of the total recipe).
Surprisingly low in sugar and for something that bears so much resemblance to ice cream.
It’s dessert, so of course it’s extra calories no matter what. Speaking from experience, the biggest challenge is trying to keep yourself from eating too much of the thing, as it feels quite light.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Note: the semifreddo itself is gluten-free, though the lady finger addition is not. That being said, gluten-free lady fingers are fairly easy to find, or you can simply omit the cookie layer altogether.
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A simplified version of my more complex lemon, lavender, and honey semifreddo cake, this recipe forgoes the scratch-made sponge cake for lady fingers and uses a high-speed blender to make the semifreddo. The whole thing comes together in less than 30 minutes or less, and involves no baking!
- 1 cup cream
- 2 tbsp lemon zest (approx 2 lemons)
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 4 large eggs
- 1/2 tsp lavender
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 8 lady finger cookies (depending on the size of your pan)
Whip the cream to firm peaks in blender or with a mixer and set aside or refrigerate. This step can be done up to the day before.
Combine remaining ingredients in blender, run on high for 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool for about 5 minutes.
Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap. You can use an unlined pan if you like, but you'll need to warm it gently when removing the semifreddo at the end.
Fold whipped cream and egg mixture together, mixing gently until just combined. Don't over-mix the semifreddo or it will deflate.
Slowly pour the semifreddo into the pan, tapping gently as you go to work out any pockets of air and to level the mixture. Gently press the lady fingers into the top of the semifreddo, forming a nice tight base (this will be the bottom layer when you turn the frozen mixture out onto a plate). Refrigerate for 1 hour, then freeze for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
To serve: remove the pan from the freezer and turn the semifreddo out onto a serving plate. Remove the plastic/foil wrap and let the dessert stand for 3-4 minutes to soften slightly. Cut with a long, thin knife that's been dipped in warm water. Serve with a drizzle of honey, candied lemon peel, nuts, or just as-is.
No high-speed blender? No problem - you can make this the old fashioned way using a double-boiler.
Whip the cream and line the loaf pan as for the standard recipe.
Set up a double boiler or bain marie (I use a large metal bowl over a large pot filled 2/3rds of the way up with water and placed over low/medium heat on the stove).
Combine all of the semifreddo ingredients in the double boiler, stirring more or less constantly to avoid scrambling the eggs, until the mixture reaches 165°F (74°C). This should take about 5-7 minutes over hot-but-not-boiling water.
Allow the semifreddo mixture to cool a bit, then whip at high speed until roughly quadrupled in volume and well-aerated. Gently mix in the whipped cream, and finish as for the standard recipe above.
I used a stand mixer of all of my whipping, but if you're using a hand mixer you might find that you get better results from the semifreddo by separating the yolks and whites, whipping the whites separately, and using the yolks in the double-boiler portion of the recipe. Combine everything at the end carefully to avoid deflating the mixture.