Susan's Spungen's Chocolate Semifreddo with Candied Salted Almonds
November 22, 2021
Good morning! Have I ever told you about the time I interviewed to work in the test kitchen at Martha Stewart Living, back in the fall/winter of 2000/2001? I had recently left Paris behind me and was hoping to get a job in publishing in New York. My sights were set on book publishing, but I couldn't resist applying to this magazine job anyway (Martha Stewart! The magazine! The test kitchen!). I interviewed at a lot of places in that period, many that I don't even remember anymore, but bits and pieces of this interview have stuck with me all these years later. The desk in the test kitchen that had a view of the Empire State Building, the blue suit I was wearing, the way the light shone through the window behind the desk of the person I was meeting with, my interviewer's striking dark hair. That person was the food director of the magazine, a lovely woman named Susan. We had a really nice conversation and then...I honestly can't remember what happened next. Did I get the job offer I was hoping for from Simon & Schuster before she could get back to me? Did she go with someone else?
That part is forever lost to me, but Susan (because yes, that Susan turned out to be the Susan Spungen) always stuck in my mind. She was so charming and fun to talk to and the interview had been actually enjoyable. Over the years, Susan's stature in the food world grew and grew - she left the magazine, wrote a cookbook, became a food stylist for blockbuster movies, wrote more books, became a New York Times contributor and creator of the world's most beautiful cookie assortment and most recently started a great recipe newsletter called Susanality. These days, Susan and I are Instagram friends, which feels very full circle indeed.
Anyway, I realize it is Thanksgiving week and you probably need a chocolate recipe like a hole in the head, but I've been meaning to tell you about this semifreddo from one of Susan's newsletters since the summer, so I'm just going to go ahead and do it, especially for the rest of you who aren't planning on immersing yourselves in turkey wings, roasting squash and exploding cranberries for the next five days. (By the way, Susan's newsletter is currently 20% off, just in case you're looking for a sweet little gift for someone or want to treat yourself - it is very much worth it.)
Alright, first things first. Semifreddo. Do you know what it is? Just in case you don't, the short answer is that it's a frozen Italian dessert. There are a million variations out there, because it's such an easy dessert to riff on, but the basic concept of semifreddo is a whipped and creamy custard that is poured into a loaf pan, frozen until solid, then unmolded, sliced and served. This summer in Italy, my mother invited friends over for dinner and asked me to make dessert. Since Susan had just written about the semifreddo, which she made with malted milk powder and vanilla bean, and a crunchy shower of salted candied almonds, I couldn't resist trying it.
But cooking in my mother's house in Italy is a bit like cooking in a vacation rental. Despite the fact that she has plenty of pots and pans and utensils, everything's a little...weird? The knives are all dull. The whisk is from a thrift store in Berlin and probably older than me. The scale is from a thrift store in Berlin and definitely older than me. The wooden cutting boards all smell like garlic. Basically, it's not my kitchen and doing anything besides the usual mealtime prep in it feels a bit like tightrope-walking. But armed with Susan's recipe, pared down to the absolute essentials (bye-bye vanilla extract and malted milk powder, silicone baking mats and flaky salt), I felt as prepared as I was going to be.
And despite cutting every conceivable corner and armed with really only the most basic kitchen things, the semifreddo was a show-stopper. The definition of a perfect recipe! Silky-smooth, rich and dark, with the gorgeous bittersweet crunch of the candied salted almonds against the velvety slick chocolate cream, it rendered everyone at the dinner time speechless, which is always the nicest feeling. And listen, if I could do it at my mother's house, you can most definitely do it wherever you are.
Below I'm going to put the recipe the way I made it (more or less). For the original, make sure you head to Susan's newsletter, linked below. (If you're in Germany and looking for malted milk powder, you can find it at Indian grocery stores, keep an eye out for the Horlick's brand.)
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Chocolate Semifreddo with Candied Salted Almonds
Adapted from Susan Spungen's Susanality newsletter
Serves 6 to 8
For the salted candied almonds:
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, plus more to grease parchment
½ cup/70 grams whole raw almonds, very roughly chopped
¼ cup/50 grams granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon flaky sea salt
For the semifreddo:
1½ cups/350 ml whole milk
6 ounces/170 grams extra bittersweet chocolate (70%)
4 large egg yolks
7 tablespoons sugar
3 large egg whites
Large pinch of salt
1. To make the candied almonds: Butter a piece of parchment paper, foil, or a silicone baking mat and lay it on the counter. In a medium (10-inch) skillet, combine the butter, almonds and sugar. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the almonds are toasted-looking and the sugar is liquefied and has turned a deep amber color, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour out onto the parchment and, using a metal offset spatula, press them down to a single layer, but don't spread them out too much. Immediately sprinkle with the flaky salt and let cool. When cooled, chop into smaller pieces (leave half of the almonds a little chunkier and store in an airtight container; these will be for the top).
2. To make the semifreddo: Line a standard (8½ x 4½ x 2½-inch) loaf pan with a large piece of plastic wrap. Leave enough excess so it can be completely folded over once it's filled.
3. Put the milk in a small saucepan and heat slowly over low heat. Meanwhile, chop the chocolate into small pieces and place in a medium bowl. Set a fine-mesh strainer on top of the bowl with the chocolate. Set aside near the stove.
4. Combine the egg yolks with 2 tablespoons of the sugar and whisk until liquified. When the milk is steaming and bubbling around the edges, slowly whisk it into the eggs and return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook it over medium heat, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, 4 to 8 minutes. If the mixture starts to curdle, briefly remove it from the heat. You’ll know it’s almost done when the foam starts to subside and the mixture begins to thicken. At this point, turn the heat down to low to avoid scrambling the eggs, and cook until shiny and smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. The consistency should be similar to heavy cream (rather than a thick pastry cream). Whisk in the vanilla extract and immediately pour it into the strainer over the bowl of chocolate, leaving any curdy bits in the pan. Push it through the strainer using a rubber spatula. Stir the two mixtures together briefly, let sit for 5 minutes, and stir again until smooth and the chocolate is completely melted. Set the bowl in a larger bowl of ice. Stir occasionally until cold, then remove from the ice.
5. Heat a large saucepan with a few inches of water in it until simmering. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or just a metal bowl if you are using a hand mixer), combine the egg whites with the remaining 5 tablespoons sugar and the salt, and set it over the simmering water. Whisk constantly, hand-holding the whisk attachment until the mixture is hot to the touch and the sugar is completely dissolved, about 2 minutes, then attach the whisk attachment to the mixer and beat the egg whites until stiff and glossy. Be careful not to overbeat, as you’ll want the meringue to be smooth and silky so that it folds easily into the chocolate.
6. Fold the meringue into the chocolate mixture: Using a rubber spatula, stir ⅓ of the meringue into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, then gently fold the rest in until no streaks remain, taking care not to deflate the mixture.
7. Use the rubber spatula to nudge about half the chocolate mixture into the pan. Sprinkle with the more finely chopped half of the candied almonds. Top with remaining chocolate mixture. Fold the plastic over to wrap completely. Find a flat, level surface in the freezer and freeze overnight.
8. When ready to serve, tap the semifreddo out of the pan, unwrap, and place upside down on a serving platter. Top with the remaining almonds. Slice and serve immediately.