The “Parfait di mandorle” is a sort of traditional Sicilian ‘semifreddo’, literally ‘half-frozen’ dessert. Nowadays you can find it in every good restaurant in Sicily. However, I have never had one better than the one prepared by my mother. Challenges are welcome.
They say that this dessert was invented in the 1960s by two brothers, the Cascinos, for their restaurant “La Botte” in Monreale, a small village placed at the top of the mountain next to Palermo with one of the most beautiful and decorated churches ever. You cannot leave Palermo without visiting the Duomo di Monreale. Here is a picture to tempt you and yes, that is gold.
I only found out that parfait is a Sicilian dessert when I was 17 years old, after talking with French friends that were totally unaware of such a French-sounding delicacy.
Actually, the use of almonds for a cold dessert should raise some doubts that it was invented in a hotter and almond-addicted place. Although it is a cold dessert, now it is served all year round.
The almond parfait is my Proust’s madeleine as it reminds me of summer holidays. As a teenager I used to open the refrigerator and have some spoons during hot afternoons, when everyone else at home was having a nap, surrendering to the unbearable hot summer days. In such a quiet atmosphere, this delicate semifreddo melts in the mouth while you see the sand brought and moved around by the hot Sirocco wind out of the window.
This special dessert requires a very low level of cooking skills and techniques but for an optimal result, you need one or two days to prepare the ingredients and let the dessert set in the refrigerator.
If you want to impress six to eight beloved persons, you will need the following ingredients.
For caramelised almonds:
- 200 grams of almonds, cut in small pieces. Believe it or not, in my family we still hand-cut each almond in 4-5 smaller pieces that are sufficiently big for your teeth. You should really trust your blender if you want to avoid the manual job.
- 120 grams of sugar
- 30 grams of butter
- 2 tablespoon of water
For the dessert:
- vanilla flavouring; in Italy using the artificial version, “vanillina”, is still common sadly.
- a tablespoon of spirit, such as Rum or Marsala; my mum recommends Cointreau for the orange flavour.
- 3 eggs, extremely fresh; start thinking to farm hens for better results.
- 250 grams of caster sugar; although I prefer the Muscovado, in this case the common white sugar should fit better with the final delicate taste of this dessert.
- 500 ml of (maybe double but for sure fresh and cold) cream; in Italy there is not the option for single or double, but for an unforgettable experience go for the double cream.
- Three medium-size bowls and a whisk that have been previously left in the refrigerator for few hours.
- Tin; the long one used for plumcakes if perfect, otherwise any other container that can be placed in the refrigerator is fine. The result will differ for the thickness of your slices.
Planning a night in front of the TV or chatting with your best friend at home? Well, it is the ideal moment to hand-cut the almonds and if you cant stop talking, continue in the kitchen, while you caramelise the almond bits. Stir the almonds bits in a very hot pan and when you can smell the toasted flavour add the sugar, the butter and 2 tablespoons of water. When caramelised but hopefully not burnt, leave the almonds to cool down on your marble kitchen top… well, or on top of baking paper and eventually store in a plastic container (even in a plastic bag) until the moment you decide that it’s time for preparing the parfait.
Preparing the parfait may take about 30 minutes or up to an hour the first times. But before starting, be sure that there is space in the refrigerator and 8 hours before eating it.
Start preparing the container. Put some cling film inside the tin and stir a handful of caramelised almonds at the bottom. I found this picture on the internet to give you an idea and to spoil a bit the result.
Whip the yolks together with the sugar until they become becomes very pale and creamy.
In another bowl beat the whites until stiff. Brave enough? Upside down the bowl and if you did a good job, the whipped whites will stick to the bowl… otherwise, clean the floor and start again.
Then whip the cream in the third (cold) bowl with the (cold) whisk. Once the cream is whipped enough to be fluffy and stiff, stir in first the whipped whites and mix with upwards movements, otherwise the trapped air will flow away and the mixture will deflate. When the mixture is even, stir in the whipped yolks, the vanilla flavouring, the spirit and mix at the same way. Have a taste and adjust with more vanilla and spirit if you like. In Italy, you know, we quite like delicate flavours, but make as many trials until you get to your ideal version.
Add the rest (and hopefully still the majority if you have not been tempted to eat them all) caramelised almond bits and stir again.
Finally put the mixture in the tin (the one with the cling film and the almonds at the bottom) and refrigerate for about 6-8 hours before eating and if you can resist even for days.
Want to impress your guests? Take out the tin from the refrigerator about 15-20 minutes before serving. In the meantime, make the last and most lascivious effort by melting some dark chocolate with some cream or butter using the bain-marie technique or in the microwave.
Serve the slices of the parfait and pour some melted chocolate on top. Enjoy.
Giuseppe Salvia, UK INDEMAND Centre