As I type this, I’m sitting in the cool(ish)ness of the living room in a little stone house in Tuscany. We all woke up early, went for a long hilly bike ride to beat the heat, and came back with our elbows dripping with sweat, our cheeks salty, hungry for all the fruit we could get our hands on; apricots, watermelons, little Saturn peaches, cherries. And now, all we really want to do it take a nap (or eat a gelato) even though it doesn’t feel like the day has been terribly exhausting, or taxing; we played bikes, and ate good things. That was the agenda. Isn’t this when jumping up and down with raw enthusiasm for the “good life” ought to be consuming our every thought and motion?
The answer is of course, yes, and it is. Even if we’re too sweaty or drained to outwardly express it. I needn’t be too worried about my endurance in this heat wave because tomorrow morning we’ll leave for the Dolomites where the mountains are calling, the weather is a bit cooler, and a breeze is promised….even if it arrives when we’re looping down the switchbacks of those fabled climbs and cols. I haven’t nearly as much time in this part of Italy, and I’m really excited to dig into the mountains a bit.
I’ve written about Italy before; how confounding I found it to be when I was living and working here as a journalist nearly 10 years ago; how difficult it was to break down my ways and expectations and embrace the Italian way of life, even though I was so young I really didn’t know my own ways or expectations yet; how left feeling I had truly and completely explored this place from top to bottom during that year of life in and how, in retrospect, I see that my abandon was a bit wary, certainly lonely, marginally frightened, slightly lost, and usually uncomfortable but ultimately determined. I’ve also told you how I feel as if I’ve rewritten my own memories of Italy, and my place in it with each subsequent visit since. That there is a certain comfort and joy that I find in the dysfunction – the expected insanity – because I realize that I often am far too reliant on the diligent and compulsive structure I create for myself. But what I haven’t told you is that my comfortability seems to stem from my acknowledgement that I’ll never really understand this place, that it will never completely understand me. That it’s quite alright for us not to understand one another, that we are what we are and that makes our relationship so increasingly good.
I lived in Italy for a year, a long long time ago. I didn’t speak a lick of Italian when I arrived and had to find my way. It was petrifying at first, but eventually, and with lots of practice and the help of a pocket dictionary, I learned to get by, to use the phrases I needed in my daily life to converse, to navigate the schedule, the sense of space, the sensitivity to meals and markets and family life in a rather perfect Italian. I still did *crazy* things, like go for long runs along the Po River, like schlep my luggage the 45 minutes walk between my apartment and the train station, and stop to eat alone in some of the nicest restaurants in the city because I didn’t have anyone particular to dine with. I couldn’t imagine having gelato before 11am; ice cream was for dessert (duh.) I was a bit too sporty, a bit too bold, and a bit too independent for Italy and nothing has changed. Still I found a little place for myself; one that was quite hard to break away from when I left and moved back to the United States. It was a niche impossible to return to after living in Asia several years later, not because I didn’t understand the language or the *ways* of Italy, but because I never have been able to recover those phrases needed to get me by. If I could walk the walk, and talk the talk, the Italians were able to overlook me, but to embrace me. To this day, when I go to open my mouth to speak in Italian – no matter how much I’ve studied – the phrases and words get mashed together with Japanese; a language that I studied far more diligently and for a longer period, with a greater fear of survival in a foreign place. So now not only am I too sporty, too bold, and too independent; I’m also absolutely lost in finding the words to speak my mind about this place. I just don’t piece them together properly and so I cannot really ever be heard, nor be understood.
So, I move through Italy as a visitor asking for things with a smile, a few words applied in a rather good accent. I understand far more of the language than I can speak, I understand far more of the culture than I can absorb, and I appreciate this place far more than anyone could ever know because I can’t actually express what it means to me.
But when I’m here, I fall in. All the way in. I’ll eat gelato at every meal if someone doesn’t stop me. I buy all the cheeses, drink wine at lunch, and take ridiculous naps. I’m becoming the person comfortable saying that the best ragu in the world is the one made by an Italian nonna because the nonna part of the recipe is requisite. I take all of this, pack it up into my heart and translate it into my life in a way that is completely personal, absolutely mine. And then when I get home I’ll attempt to twist it into my own thing, and call it something else. That’s exactly what happened with this semifreddo recipe I made the night before I left for bell’Italia earlier this week. I took something about Italy that I love, internalized it, twisted it a bit, mixed in something Japanese and called it my own; a tart + sweet apricot semifreddo.
The recipe here is as straightforward as it gets. And the process is therefore somewhat blasphemous to an Italian. You don’t need an ice cream maker, or much time at all. Just a bowl or a loaf pan and a freezer. Cook the fruit down, whip the cream, condensed milk and add the yogurt, and stir in the homemade jam. If you’re not an apricot fan, or if there is another fruit that is “of the moment” for you, swap it out. Just be sure that you cut the flesh of the fruit into pieces small enough that they don’t need to break down much during the cooking process. Figs, cherries, berries, peaches or even plums would also be really delicious I imagine. I like to add toasted black sesame seeds to the top of scoops before serving, but other nuts or seeds would also be great. The rice vinegar adds the tart to the taste, and this lends a slightly asian flavor profile. I might suggest using white wine vinegar if you swap out the apricots for berries or non-stone fruits. Lastly, don’t even think about skimping on the heavy cream here. But the best variety you can and know that milk, half and half or something less than whole fat cream just won’t work.
As I said, it’s been a long time since I found myself in the middle of the Dolomites, and I can’t wait to see what I pick up there. I’m fully anticipating that the collision of Swiss/German/Italian culture + cuisine will rock my world, and that the efforts required to climb the peaks, and the rewarding vistas for those that make the push are going to steal my breath away. I’ll let you know what happens. Meantime, enjoy! xo- L
- 1 lb apricots, diced
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
- 3 Tablespoons black sesame seeds
- 2 cups heavy whipping cream
- pinch of kosher salt
- 2/3 cup organic sweetened condensed milk
- 1/2 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
- Cook apricots and sugar in a medium pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has broken down into a thick, chunky jam (you don't want a syrupy texture!) roughly 10–15 minutes. Stir in the rice vinegar and let cool.
- Meanwhile, toast black sesame seeds in a dry small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Let cool.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip cream and salt until cream holds a medium-stiff peak. Then, gently whisk in sweetened condensed milk and yogurt until completely blended. Next, gently fold in half of the apricot jam, just enough to create streaks, then gently fold in remaining jam (mixture should look marbled with pockets of jam).
- Transfer to a medium bowl or waxed paper lined loaf pan and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours and up to 3 days.
- Serve semifreddo topped with toasted sesame seeds.