Lavender, Lemon & Honey Semifreddo Cake
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All opinions are my own.
Isn’t the subconscious mind an entertaining thing? Easter is around the corner, so naturally I set out to make a delicious, bright, spring dessert. I had a lot of ideas in mind, but childhood birthday parties were not one of them. And yet here I am, looking at the lemony, floral, refreshingly light-and-airy fruits of my labour, and all I can think to write about are comic books and ice cream cake. I am considerably further removed from my own birthday parties than I am from those of my children, so perhaps it’s really their parties, along with the boxes of takeout pizza and plastic tablecloths, that are fresher in my mind. But this is my cake, and darn it all, I’m going to have a little party of my own.
Comic books and ice cream cake. 10 year old me is rejoicing, though probably a little uncertain about what exactly 36 year old me is connecting those ideas too. If you’re in the same boat, allow me to explain. The ice cream cake part is, I hope, somewhat self-explanatory. Semifreddo is an Italian dessert made with eggs, cream, and sugar that have been whipped into an airy mixture and frozen. The name semifreddo means partly frozen, though the dessert is actually frozen completely. The air whipped into the semifreddo keeps it from freezing into a solid block, yielding a gloriously rich yet light dessert that’s rather similar to ice cream (specifically French-style ice creams and American frozen custards, both of which contain plenty of eggs). Semifreddos are usually served on their own, but I wanted to take this recipe a bit further with another airy egg-based treat – the light sponge cakes sandwiching the semifreddo layer. This brings us to the comic book side of things, though admittedly in a bit of a roundabout way. Let’s talk about Deadpool.
I was pretty big into comic books in my youth. My brother and I collected a lot of books, and we were pretty serious about it too. We collected books that we thought would be valuable, and we sought out a lot of older stuff, but we still loved the characters and the stories. Well… some of the stories anyway – the 90’s were definitely a mixed bag when it came to comic book story lines. But a few absolute gems came from that strange era of comic books, and one character that we loved from square one was Deadpool. My brother now maintains our collection along with tons of material he’s added (it’s much more his collection than ours now), and he’s shown off our copy of Deadpool’s first appearance on his Instagram feed, in case you’re curious or one of those exhausting people who demands proof of pop culture credentials. These days Deadpool has become an enormously popular blockbuster franchise, but for us comic book aficionados (read: geeks) the Merc with a Mouth was a breath of fresh air back in the day. His bizarre fourth-wall-breaking style and decidedly quirky personality was a ton of fun, and a nice distraction from the fact that he was awash in a world of weirdly drawn feet, hilariously proportioned bodies, and costumes with wayyyy too many pouches. Now that we’re living in the midst of the Age of Comic Book Movies, I’m feeling a bit of hipster-esque satisfaction with all of this; I liked Deadpool before he was cool. Before I was cool too, for that matter. Actually I’m not sure if I’m cool at all. Moving on.
I feel like things are going to go off the rails here, so let me try to reel it back in. The film version of Deadpool (portrayed perfectly by beautiful human and fellow Canadian Ryan Reynolds) has something of a catchphrase: Maximum Effort. Despite initial appearances, it’s definitely not a motivational poster mantra extolling the virtues of trying your best. It’s a great little line, spoken in a way that says “Alright, clearly this is going to take a bit more work than I’d like it to.” This cake was a Maximum Effort sort of recipe for me. It shouldn’t have been so complicated, but I was forced to roll up my sleeves, roll back my eyes, and make things work. Fortunately for you all, I’ve jumped through the hoops so you don’t have to. Sure, it’ll be Effort – but hopefully not Maximum Effort. And if you’re thinking that this is still not going to fit into your schedule (no shame there) then I’ve got another great piece of news: this recipe has a sibling that can be thrown together in under 30 minutes and with virtually zero complicated technique required.
(aka ‘Maximum Effort’)
A big part of what I do here is try to make recipes accessible and manageable. This is especially true for more complex, multi-stage recipes like this one. I hesitate to call this a difficult recipe, but if you go in half-cocked it will definitely be difficult. With the right gear and a bit of reading though, it’s actually surprisingly hands off. If you don’t have the ideal gear (more on this in a moment), there are some instructions to help you on your way, and there’s also a simplified and super-easy recipe variation that you can throw together in under 30 minutes. In fact, if you have a high-speed blender like a Vitamix, that recipe can be combined with this one to simplify things considerably.
I generally try to build my recipes around the minimum amount of kitchen gadgetry, and to provide options and alternatives wherever possible. That being said, this recipe is MUCH easier to handle if you have a stand mixer. It’s not impossible without one, but you’ll need more patience, some arm strength, and a few more steps if you’re going to use a hand mixer only. If you’re some kind of masochist who likes to hand-whisk things, this is still doable, but get ready for an arm workout that’ll make Thor nod approvingly. I guess we weren’t done with the comic book references. In short, you’ll need to whip the whites and yolks separately for both the semifreddo and the cake portions of the recipe. For the details on this method, check out the notes in the recipe card below.
I made the semifreddo in this recipe the old-fashioned way; i.e. with a double-boiler (bain marie) and the stand mixer. If you have a Vitamix or other high-power blender, you’ve got the opportunity to simplify this step considerably by using the semifreddo technique in this recipe. If you do use the double-boiler method, you don’t need a specific pot – I just float the mixing bowl in a large pot of water (e.g. a Dutch oven). A food thermometer takes the guesswork out of getting the semifreddo to the right temperature, so that’s really nice to have too. Lastly, a kitchen scale is nice to have for the sponge cake, as you’ll get somewhat more consistent results by using weights instead of volumes.
This sponge cake recipe is all about the air. There are no leavening agents, and a fairly minimal amount of flour. Instead, the light texture of the crumb is derived from the air that’s whipped into the eggs. Without enough air, the sponge will be too dense. This is the first part of the recipe where you’ll notice the distinct advantage of a stand mixer. Using one allows you to prepare the cake batter with whole eggs and without having to actually hold the a mixer for a prolonged period. If you’re using a hand mixer, refer to the recipe card notes below for information on how to separate and whisk the eggs.
The cake itself is actually quite easy to make as long as you whip the eggs thoroughly and avoid deflating them by over-stirring the flour. I used two 8 inch cake pans lined with circles of parchment paper and greased with butter, and the cakes came out with zero difficulty. You could also use a single relatively deep 9 inch pan to bake the cake, then cut the cake into two round halves. If you opt to go with this method you’ll need to increase the baking time to compensate for the thicker cake.
The cake itself is quite simple and not overly sweet, so you’ll want to make sure that you don’t skimp on the brushed-on lavender-lemon syrup.
As with curds, custards, and sabayons, the biggest technical challenge in this recipe is cooking the eggs into the dessert without scrambling them. It’s actually not all that difficult of a thing to do with a double boiler – the two biggest factors to consider are that you need to stir pretty much the whole time, and that you don’t want to rush things. As I’ve mentioned above already, if you have a high-speed blender (e.g. a Vitamix) you can actually take a fantastic hands-off shortcut and make part of the semifreddo in there, bypassing the stovetop portion all together. High speed blenders can whip a lot of air into your eggs, and the heat of the blades and motor will actually cook the mixture for you. It’s similar to the curd making technique I’ve used before, and it’s how I was able to create a simplified 30-minute variation for this recipe. Honestly, the next time I make this (or any other semifreddo), I’ll use the blender to do the eggs. It’s just that much easier, and the results are every bit as good, in my opinion.
Now, let’s look at a couple of the ingredients in a bit more detail.
I love lavender, but there’s a fine line between a lovely floral element in your recipe and a cake that tastes like French soap. I’ve aimed to keep things on the subtle side in this recipe. If you’re a huge lavender fan you could consider adding a bit more to either the semifreddo or the syrup, but I would be very careful. I prefer instead to garnish the finished cake with lavender flowers for a bit of extra kick and for the visual aspect.
I like to keep the semifreddo very smooth and creamy, and as such I didn’t use whole lavender flowers there. Instead, I used a spice grinder (a mortar and pestle would work too) to pulverize the lavender with a bit of sugar, then sifted out any big bits of plant that were leftover. This is totally optional though, and you can definitely use the flowers as-is if you prefer.
Lavender flowers are often available in the spice section of a grocery store, though the price can be a bit on the high side. If you’re fond of lavender, consider buying a small bag from a local farm (or farmer’s market) or online. It keeps for a long time without losing flavour, and it’s generally more cost-effective.
Not a fan of lavender? No worries. You can omit it entirely and focus on the honey and lemon combination, or add a different complimentary flavour like ginger. A bit of candied ginger in the semifreddo and a teaspoon or so of ground ginger in the cake would be a great variation. Cardamom would also be a very nice substitute to use.
Honey is a big deal in this recipe, and definitely not just a simple swap-out for sugar. The honey plays a huge roll from a flavour perspective, so you’ll want to consider it carefully. Choose a honey that you like, and be aware that a stronger tasting honey will have a more pronounced effect on the semifreddo. I used a rather bold Tasmanian Leatherwood honey with tons of character, but you might want to go with something lighter and more floral. You can also drop the honey altogether in favour of sugar, but let me emphasize that this drastically changes the character of the dessert. The simple semifreddo recipe that I made as a sibling to this one uses sugar instead of honey, and let me tell you it’s an incredibly different kind of dessert. Honey brings distinctive flavours and scents right to the forefront, while the lemon brightens things and the lavender lends a fairly subtle note. With sugar, however, the lemony character of the semifreddo becomes much more pronounced, and the lavender becomes the sole floral component. Both versions are delicious, but decidedly different.
It’s also worth noting that honey is sweeter than sugar per gram, so make sure to pay attention to the proportions if you’re exploring any variations.
Given that this is a somewhat complex recipe, the instructions in the recipe can look a little intimidating. I’ll reiterate that this isn’t actually a very technically difficult recipe, but there are a lot of steps and you do want to organize yourself. I’ve put detail into the recipe itself so that you know what goes where (and when), but there are a few additional tips for breaking up your work flow and/or getting things done ahead of time.
If you do want to work ahead, you can make the cakes and syrup the day before. They’ll both keep in the fridge quite well. Be sure to let your cakes cool before putting them in the fridge in a container/bag/plastic wrap. You can also grind the lavender and sugar together ahead of time if you’re so inclined. For the semifreddo, you can whip the cream much earlier in the day or even the night before, then store it in the fridge.
In terms of work flow, I’d encourage you to take some time to do a few things before you start doing the actual food stuff:
- Cut your parchment paper circles and measure out the aluminum foil piece used to extend the sides of the cake pan upward.
- Make sure that your stand mixer bowl will fit into your double boiler setup. If it won’t, set up an alternative (e.g. a smaller metal mixing bowl).
- Clear your work space, including space in your sink so that you can clean your mixing bowl between steps. You’re going to use that bowl a lot, and the last thing you want is to have no space to clean it up.
- If you’re not working with a stand mixer and you need to separate your eggs, separate them ahead of time – even the night before!
I think you’ll be delighted by the final recipe, and by how nicely it actually comes together with a bit of planning. And remember, if you’re looking to do something a little easier, this wonderful simplified recipe is a great substitute or partial replacement! You can easily hybridize the two recipes, and use the high-speed blender version of the semifreddo from that recipe along with the cake portion from this one.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a single serving (1/10th portion of the total recipe).
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.
A beautiful, decadent, and very different take on ice cream cake, this frozen dessert combines a simple and airy egg-based sponge cake with a floral and citrusy semifreddo layer. This recipe is easiest with a stand mixer (though not impossible without one - see notes), and can be broken up into chunks in order to save time.
- 3 large eggs at room temperature
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar (60 g)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- pinch salt
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour (70 g) or cake flour, plus a little for dusting
- butter for greasing the pans
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 tsp lavender
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 cup cream
- 1/2 tsp lavender
- 1 tsp sugar (optional - see instructions)
- 4 large eggs at room temperature
- 2 tbsp lemon zest (approx 2 lemons)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1/2 cup honey or 1/2 cup + 1 tbsp sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
Line two 8 inch cake pans with a circle of parchment paper. Grease the sides and paper with a bit of butter, and dust with flour.
Preheat your oven to 350°F (176°C), and position the racks so that the cakes will sit in the middle.
Note: these instructions are for a stand mixer. If you're using a hand mixer, see the notes below for the variation.
In an electric stand mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the eggs at high speed for about 1 minute, then add the sugar slowly. Add the vanilla and salt. Continue to whip at high speed for 5 minutes. The resulting mixture should be airy, light yellow, and have the sugar well-dissolved. If you see a lot of grains of sugar, or the mixture isn't looking very airy, continue to whip for another 2-3 minutes.
Sift the flour into the egg and sugar mixture slowly, stirring gently with a spatula to combine without deflating the whipped eggs. Stir just enough to incorporate the flour into the batter, taking care to get the spatula to the bottom and edges of the bowl to avoid leaving any clumps.
Divide the cake batter between the two pans. Bake in the center of the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until the top is golden and a toothpick emerges clean. Carefully remove the cakes from their pans, before transferring them to a rack to cool. You can keep one of the parchment paper rounds to re-line the pan for the freezer step (see below). When cooled, finish with lavender-lemon syrup (see next step).
Combine the sugar, water, lemon juice, and lavender in a small saucepan. Heat over low on the stove top, keeping the mixture just below a simmer for about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool for at least 10 minutes (note that you can also make and refrigerate the syrup ahead of time).
Whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks, then set aside. Clean and dry the mixer bowl. Note that this step can be done day the day before to save time.
Optional - Place the lavender and sugar together in a spice grinder or mortar, and grind together to make a fine lavender/sugar powder, then set aside. You can sift out any larger pieces with small strainer. If you don't mind whole lavender flowers in the semifreddo then you can skip this step and omit the extra tablespoon of sugar.
Set up double boiler on the stove. I simply float the stand mixer bowl in a large pot (Dutch oven) filled 2/3rds of the way with water, but anything large enough to easily accommodate your bowl. Heat the water but keep well below a boil.
Add eggs, honey, lemon juice, zest, lavender/sugar, and salt to the clean and dry stand mixer bowl, or another large metal bowl if your mixer bowl won't sit comfortably on a double boiler. Mix together.
Place the bowl on the double boiler. Gently whisk the ingredients to keep them moving (this will keep the egg from scrambling). Cook until the temperature of the mixture reaches 165°F (74°C) - about 5-7 minutes. It should look thick and glossy, but still be quite runny.
Transfer the mixture to the stand mixer and whip with the whisk attachment until the mixture is airy and approximately quadrupled in size (about 5 minutes, but this will vary a bit depending on your mixer, and take longer if you're using a hand mixer).
Gently fold the whipped cream into the mixture with a whisk or a spatula. Mix just enough to incorporate all the ingredients while taking care not to deflate things.
Place one of the parchment paper rounds back into a cake pan. Take a long (26 inch/66 cm minimum) sheet of aluminum foil and fold it in half the long way, then shape it into a round wall lining the cake pan. This will act to extend the walls of the cake pan upward, allowing you to make the semifreddo cake taller. Gently slide one cake into the pan (doing this last will help to hold the foil in place).
Brush about 1/3 of the syrup over the cake in the pan. Set the remainder aside.
Pour the finished semifreddo over the bottom cake layer. Tap gently to remove any air pockets.
Gently place the second cake over the semifreddo. Brush the top of this cake layer with another 1/3 of the syrup. Transfer the cake to the freezer and freeze for at least 8 hours.
Remove the cake from the freezer and gently pull out the aluminum foil lining. Lift or turn the cake out of the pan carefully (it may help to let it thaw for a minute or two if the semifreddo is frozen to the pan. Remove the parchment paper lining.
Allow the cake to sit for about 3-4 minutes to soften a little. Garnish with lavender flowers or a dusting of powdered sugar. Slice with a large, thin knife that's been dipped in warm water.
Optional: take the remaining lemon/lavender glaze and mix it with 1 tbsp of honey. This is a bit easier to do if you heat the honey first (10 seconds in the microwave should do it). This can be drizzled over the cake, or on individual slices.
No Stand Mixer? Read On!
Given the huge amount of whipping needed to properly aerate both the cake batter and the semifreddo, this is definitely an ideal stand mixer recipe, but if you only have a hand mixer you can make this work with a little modification. If you have a whisk and arms like Thor, you can probably even do it by hand.
Whipping whole eggs is tricky, which is why we let the stand mixer do all the work. If you've got a hand mixer you can achieve a similar effect by separating the whites and yolks for both the cake and semifreddo components and whipping them separately. Note that the instructions below are designed to interweave with the primary instructions above, so be sure to read everything carefully.
For the cake: whip half of the sugar with yolks until they form a light yellow, foamy mixture. Whip the remaining sugar with the whites until 'trails' form in the whites (i.e. lines left by the whisk don't disappear back into the foam). Combine everything together (gently to avoid deflating things) and bake as instructed in the basic recipe above.
For the semifreddo: as with the cake, you want to separate the yolks and the whites and whip them separately. If you're using honey you won't have to worry about getting all of the sugar to dissolve, so that simplifies things a bit. Stir the yolks with the honey, lemon juice/zest, lavender/sugar, and salt over a double-boiler/bain-marie (as above) until the mixture reaches 165°F (74°C), then set aside to cool slightly. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks and set them aside as well, then whip the cream and set it aside. Lots of whipping. Lastly, whip the cooked semifreddo mixture to an airy foam; about four times the original volume. Carefully combine the three whipped mixtures, stirring gently until just combined, and freeze between the cakes as instructed in above.