Making semifreddo is like playing with all the toys in the dessert toolbox.

Textures, flavors, fruit, chocolate, cookies – the home cook can reach for them all.

Semifreddo is an Italian frozen dessert. It’s similar to ice cream, yet the glories lie in how it is not. No ice cream machine needed. No churning. And (usually) no tricky custard to cook carefully over simmering water without letting it curdle. Most semifreddo recipes involve no cooking at all.

Though it has a long tradition in Italy, semifreddo doesn’t pop up often here in restaurants or cookbooks, and that’s too bad.

“People don’t see a lot of it. It’s a weird orphan or stepchild,” says Matt Lewis, co-author with Renato Poliafito of the new cookbook “Baked Elements: Our Ten Favorite Ingredients” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $32.50). “But in some respects it’s easier for people to make [than ice cream]. There is a little more wiggle room to a semifreddo.”

It can be as simple as a frozen mousse, but usually involves beaten egg yolks and whipped egg whites, which provide structure and form, and whipped cream, which provides mouth-feel and flavor, in some combination. Each is whipped or beaten separately, then carefully folded together to preserve loft, but with a careful hand. The technique is not difficult.

A semifreddo can be plain, flavored with just the rich eggs and creamy dairy, or involve cookies or cake or fruit, whole or pureed. The texture is less dense than ice cream and feels lighter on the palate (but make no mistake, it can be as rich). Usually frozen into loaf pans, then sliced after unmolding, a semifreddo makes an elegant presentation that shows off layers and mix-ins.

In their book, named after Baked, their popular Brooklyn bakery, and which focuses a chapter each on a favorite ingredient, Lewis and Poliafito conjure childhood with a semifreddo based on malted milk powder, and layered with lots of malted milk balls for crunch. It can’t help but delight when slices are cut.

Toward a less whimsical end is a semifreddo with amaretti from Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri’s book, “Rustic Italian Food” (Ten Speed Press, $35). The Italian cookies, finely ground, impart their almond flavor and contribute a subtle crunch.

Vetri’s richly textured semifreddo, as well as the lighter version from Baked, makes a good template for other flavor innovations.

“Semifreddo is a super-adaptable type of dessert,” says Poliafito. “Once you master how to make it, you can apply whatever flavor or textures you like into it. It’s relatively difficult to mess up.”

Amaretti Semifreddo

4 eggs, separated

4 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

2 cups whipping cream

¾ cup crushed amaretti cookies

Line two 8½-by-4-inch loaf pans with plastic wrap, leaving a 2-inch overhang on all sides.

Put the 8 egg yolks and the sugar in a bowl; whisk until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.

Put the 4 egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer; whisk on medium speed until firm peaks form, 2-3 minutes. Pour into the yolk mixture, but wait to fold it in.

Whip the cream and amaretti on medium-low until soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Gently fold the whipped cream and egg white mixtures into the yolk mixture using a rubber spatula. Pour into loaf pans; level. Cover and freeze until firm, 6 hours or overnight.

Unmold on a serving dish; cut into 1-inch slices. Serve with chocolate sauce, more amaretti or fresh berries.

Serves 16.

– From “Rustic Italian Food” by Marc Vetri, who serves the dessert with chocolate sauce and chopped almonds.

Per serving: 179 calories, 14g fat, 8g saturated fat, 134mg cholesterol, 11g carbohydrates, 3g protein, 33mg sodium, no fiber.

Milk Chocolate Malt Semifreddo

10 ounces (about 1 ¾ cups) malted milk balls

½ cup sugar

1/3 cup malted milk powder

5 large eggs

2 cups whipping cream

1 tablespoon vanilla

½ teaspoon salt

Chocolate syrup

Line two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans with plastic wrap, allowing for generous overhang on all sides. Pulse the malted milk balls in a food processor until coarsely chopped. Sprinkle the bottom of the loaf pans with one-quarter of the malted milk balls.

Whisk ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, the malted milk powder and the egg yolks in a large bowl until the mixture turns pale, 1-2 minutes.

Whisk or beat the whipping cream in a bowl, 1 minute; sprinkle remaining 3 tablespoons sugar and the vanilla over the cream. Beat until soft peaks form. Fold the whipped cream into the yolk mixture.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or with electric beaters), beat the egg whites with the salt just until stiff peaks form. Fold one-third of the egg whites into the yolk base. Add half the remaining egg whites; gently fold until almost incorporated. Fold in remaining whites.

Fill loaf pans halfway with the semifreddo mixture. Smooth the tops. Freeze, 10 minutes. Remove pans from freezer. Sprinkle first layer with remaining malted milk balls. Cover with remaining semifreddo. Smooth top. Cover the pans tightly with the plastic wrap overhang. Freeze until firm, about 6 hours.

To serve, invert each semifreddo onto a platter; remove plastic wrap. Drizzle with chocolate syrup. Cut into 1-inch slices.

Serves 18.

– “Baked Elements” by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito.

Per serving: 236 calories, 15g fat, 9g saturated fat, 91mg cholesterol, 22g carbohydrates, 4g protein, 130mg sodium, 1 g fiber.


Note: The recipes use raw eggs, which may carry salmonella. Pasteurized eggs can be used instead.