SERVES 8 TO 10
Erice is etched forever in my memory; this almost mystical city, 751 meters high atop Monte San Giuliano on the western coast of Sicily, seems perpetually bathed in nebulous mist. The drive up the hairpin mountainside to the center snakes by breathtaking vistas of neatly laid out valleys for as far as the eye can see.
Monte San Giuliano is named in honor of Saint Giuliano, who inspired the Norman count, Roger, in a dream to rise up against the Arab colonizers of Sicily. In mythology, Erice was associated with the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Its narrow streets are fitted with neatly cut, squared stone and the endearing stone houses have wonderful flowered courtyards that have retained their medieval characteristics.
Erice is known for its arts and crafts. One of these is pasta reale, meaning "royal paste", and is a dough made from almonds, egg whites, and sugar, fashioned by hand into realistic-looking fruits, vegetables, flowers, and whimsical items.
The pastries made in Erice are sought after as well, and originally were the work of cloistered nuns. The pupi Siciliani (Sicilian puppets) have long been part of Erice's and other parts of Sicily's cultural heritage.
On Sunday evenings puppet shows are staged; they were originally meant to distract people from their cares and tell a continuous story, with one part being told each Sunday evening. It was in Erice that I had a wonderful meal beginning with marinated eggplant in olive oil and mint, fresh sardines, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, green olives, and broccoli, which is fried green cauliflower.
This was followed by couscous and an elaborately made fish soup, and the finale to the meal was a semifreddo (partially frozen) dessert made with cream, eggs, sugar, and caramelized almonds. I loved it so much that I did not hesitate to ask the chef for the recipe.
When making the dessert you will have some of the almond mixture left over. It can be stored in jars in the refrigerator for months and used in cakes or on top of ice cream, or enjoyed as is for a great snack. I recommend that you make the almond mixture, known as croccante in Italian, a day or two ahead.
2 cups (8 ounces) whole natural almonds
2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups whipping cream
5 large eggs, separated
Line a 10 x 4 x 3-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap, allowing the excess to hang over the edges. Line a 7 x 3 1/2 x 2 1/2-inch loaf or similar pan with plastic wrap, and allow the excess to hang over the edges. Set the pans aside.
Spray a cutting board or a marble slab with butter or cooking spray and set aside.
In a 1-quart heavy-duty saucepan combine the almonds and 1 1/4 cups of the sugar. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat until the sugar begins to melt and coat the almonds. This will take about 10 minutes to do. Do not allow the almonds to burn, so take care to turn down the heat if necessary. The almonds should look shiny and well coated.
Immediately pour the almond mixture out onto the cutting board or marble slab, and working very quickly smooth it out with the back of a wooden spoon. Allow the mixture to cool and harden. When hard, use an 8- to 10-inch chef's knife to cut the almonds into small, coarse pieces. You will need to push down very hard with the knife to cut the almond mixture. Set aside.
In a large bowl beat the cream with 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar until stiff. Set aside.
In another bowl beat the egg yolks with the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar until the eggs are lemon-colored and the sugar is well blended. Set aside. With clean beaters beat the egg whites in a separate large bowl until soft peaks form that are shiny and fluffy. With a rubber spatula fold the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture until well blended, then fold the whipped cream into the egg mixture until well blended. This in now the semifreddo, ready to freeze.
Spread 1/2 cup of the almonds in the base of the 10 x 4 x 3-inch loaf pan. Spread 2 heaping cupfuls of the semifreddo over the almonds, then sprinkle another 1/2 cup of the almonds over the mixture. Make two more layers of semifreddo and almonds, ending with the semifreddo. Fold the overlapping pieces of plastic wrap over the top of the pan and gently push on it to smooth the ingredients. Cover the pan completely with plastic wrap, then a sheet of aluminum foil, and freeze.
Use the remaining semifreddo mixture to fill the smaller pan in the same manner.
When ready to use, unwrap the aluminum foil and open up the plastic wrap on top of the pan. Place a serving dish over the top of the pan and invert the semifreddo onto the dish. Gently pull away and discard the plastic wrap. Allow the semifreddo to stand at room temperature for a few minutes. Cut it into slices and serve immediately. Save the smaller pan of semifreddo for future use.
Did you know that Sicily is ablaze with almond trees in February, yielding both bitter and sweet almonds that are used in many Sicilian desserts and even in caponata, a Sicilian sweet-and-sour eggplant relish?
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