Where cool meets finesse

Times Staff Writers

SUMMER'S not quite here and the weather's as manic as the stock market, yet the urge to break out the ice cream machines and patio umbrellas is fierce. We want our dinner outside (sunglasses down, beach on our horizon), and a sweet finale with a cool touch.

Frozen desserts have a hip, retro feel -- like throwing a polka-dot apron over a landscape of tattoos -- which gives them a certain panache that a bowl of ice cream just wouldn't have.

They're also a way to finesse issues of temperature and timing, when you want a sophisticated cold note to the end of your meal but don't want to waste any of your patio downtime laboring over fussy desserts in the kitchen.

Look for recipes that can be made and assembled ahead of time, desserts that can be kept in your freezer like secret weapons, ready for unveiling.

Individual coviglia al caffe, Italian frozen puddings named for the little cups in which they're traditionally served, are impressive -- and easy.

Just make a coffee-infused stove-top custard, fold in whipped cream and beaten egg whites, and let the mixture set up in a bowl in the freezer.

After the mousse is half frozen, stir (this adds volume and loft) and pour into small cups. Then just before you're ready for dessert, take the cups out of the freezer and add a quick spoonful of whipped cream and a shard of shaved chocolate.

Or assemble graceful bonbons from store-bought wafers, a batch of strawberry ice cream and a dish of melted bittersweet chocolate. Make the ice cream -- shot with lime and laced with vanilla bean -- ahead of time.

You can build the bonbons earlier too, then enrobe them with a simple pour of melted chocolate moments before serving; the chocolate sets up prettily as soon as it hits the ice cream.

For a gorgeous finale to a casual meal out on the patio -- under the lingering heat and lengthening rays of the May sun -- offer a slice of frozen flourless cake layered with a luscious hazelnut semifreddo and the golden pixie dust of crushed homemade praline. To save time you can buy the praline too, but the candy takes minutes to make and yields the kind of sultry, caramel flavor that's worth the effort.

This simple terrine looks more complicated than it is; the entire confection can be made ahead of time. Unlike some frozen desserts, you don't have to temper it: Just unmold the cake (encased in plastic wrap for an easy exit) and cut a slice. Add a sprig of mint and a few halved kumquats.And make sure to give these desserts their few final touches -- the dip in chocolate, the spoonful of cream -- in front of an audience with a twirl of the apron and a little patio flourish. Sure, all you did was pull them from the freezer, but you don't have to point this out.

Never underestimate the ta-da effect.

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amy.scattergood@latimes.com

donna.deane@latimes.com

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Coviglia al caffe

Total time: 30 minutes, plus freezing time

Servings: 10

Note: Adapted from "Cucina del Sole" by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. "Coviglia should not be frozen hard," she writes. If you must keep them in the freezer longer than 2 to 3 hours, transfer them out of the freezer and into the refrigerator so they loosen up before serving.

cup milk

2 teaspoons very finely ground espresso coffee (freshly ground)

2 teaspoons flour

1/2 cup sugar

4 egg yolks

1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided

1/2 cup strong brewed black coffee

1 1/2 cups whipping cream, divided

2 egg whites

1 teaspoon powdered sugar

Grated bittersweet chocolate for garnish

1. In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the milk until it is just hot to the touch, but do not let the milk come to a boil. Keep warm.

2. In a small bowl, combine the ground espresso and flour, tossing with a fork to mix well. Set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, add the sugar to the egg yolks and beat until the mixture is light-colored and thickened. Continue beating as you slowly pour in the warm milk. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, the coffee and the mixture of ground espresso and flour, beating constantly.

4. When everything is well-combined, transfer the mixture to a heavy saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens to a creamy consistency. Note that it's important to watch the mixture and stir constantly because if it comes to a boil, it will curdle as the eggs start to cook. (If that starts to happen, immediately pull the pan off the heat and cool it by setting the base of the pan in cold water. Strain the mixture to get rid of any curdled/cooked bits and continue with the remainder.) In the end, the mixture will thicken to a custard and coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

5. Beat 1 cup of the whipping cream in a chilled bowl to soft peaks, then fold the whipped cream into the coffee mixture. Rinse the beaters and beat the egg whites to stiff peaks; fold into the coffee cream.

6. Pour into a glass bowl and freeze about 1 hour, then stir the mixture, which should be half-frozen. Divide into espresso cups and return to the freezer until almost frozen, an additional 2 to 3 hours.

7. Whip the remaining cream together with the powdered sugar and remaining vanilla to soft peaks. Spoon a small dollop of whipped cream onto each serving and sprinkle lightly with bittersweet chocolate. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 207 calories; 3 grams protein; 13 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 16 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 133 mg. cholesterol; 39 mg. sodium.

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Strawberry bonbons

Total time: 45 minutes, plus freezing time

Servings: Makes 12 bonbons

Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane. This recipe makes 1 quart of ice cream, more than is needed for the bonbons.

1 pint strawberries, stemmed and cleaned

1 cup milk

1 cup whipping cream

1/4 cup corn syrup

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 vanilla bean, scraped and seeded

Grated peel and juice of 1 small lime

12 vanilla wafers

4 to 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1. Puree the strawberries in a food processor or blender and set aside. You will have about 1 cup.

2. In a saucepan, heat the milk, whipping cream and corn syrup over medium heat until just simmering. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla, then slowly whisk into the milk mixture. Continue to heat, stirring constantly, until the cream thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, 5 to 6 minutes.

3. Strain the custard into a bowl over an ice bath, and stir occasionally until the mixture is chilled. Stir in the pureed strawberries and the lime peel and juice.

4. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions, then spoon into a chilled glass dish. Cover and freeze until solid.

5. To assemble the bonbons, spoon a small (1-ounce) scoop of ice cream onto each of the vanilla wafers. Place the wafers on a large baking sheet and freeze while you melt the chocolate. Place the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water and melt gently over moderate heat, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool slightly, then spoon 2 heaping teaspoons chocolate over each of the frozen bonbons. Serve the bonbons immediately, or place back in the freezer until ready to serve.

Each serving: 166 calories; 1 gram protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 12 mg. cholesterol; 22 mg. sodium.

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Chocolate cake with hazelnut semifreddo

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes plus freezing time

Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane.

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate

1/4 cup butter, plus extra for buttering the pan

4 egg yolks

1 1/2 cups sugar, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla, divided

7 egg whites, divided

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup cocoa, sifted

3/4 cup toasted hazelnuts

1 cup whipping cream

1 tablespoon amaretto

liqueur

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the chocolate and butter in a metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water and heat until melted and just combined, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool until just warm to the touch but still melted.

2. While the chocolate is cooling, beat the egg yolks until light and fluffy. Slowly drizzle one-fourth cup sugar into the eggs and continue to beat until fluffy and airy. Beat in 1 teaspoon vanilla until combined.

3. Separately, beat four egg whites with the salt to soft peaks. Drizzle one-fourth cup sugar into the whites and continue to beat to stiff peaks. Set aside.

4. Fold the whipped egg whites gently into the whipped yolks, then fold in the melted chocolate and cocoa.

5. Spread the batter into a 15-inch by 10-inch baking pan which has been buttered, lined with parchment paper, and buttered again. Bake the cake for 10 to 12 minutes, until set. Turn the cake out onto a rack to cool.

6. Place the cooled cake on a cutting board and cut three rectangles from the cake, each the dimensions of the 9-inch loaf pan (these rectangles will form layers in the final dessert). Set aside.

7. Make the hazelnut praline: In a small saucepan, combine one-half cup sugar with 2 tablespoons water. Heat to boiling (dissolving the sugar), then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the syrup turns golden brown, several minutes. Stir in the toasted hazelnuts, then pour out onto a lightly-buttered baking sheet and allow to cool. Break the pralines into pieces and coarsely process in a food processor; you should have 1 1/2 cups crushed praline. Set aside.

8. Make the semifreddo: Whip the cream to stiff peaks, then fold in the amaretto liqueur and remaining vanilla. Separately, whip the remaining three egg whites. Gradually beat in the remaining one-half cup sugar until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the whipped cream, along with 1 cup of the crushed praline.

9. Assemble the cake: Line the loaf pan with plastic wrap. Place 1 layer of the cake snugly into the bottom of the pan. Evenly spread one-third of the semifreddo base over the top of the cake, and top with a generous tablespoon of the crushed pralines. Repeat with the remaining layers, for a total of three layers. Sprinkle the remaining praline evenly over the top of the cake. Freeze, wrapped in plastic, until ready to serve.

10. To unmold the cake, dip the base of the frozen loaf pan quickly in a bowl of hot water to loosen the cake. Remove the cake (still wrapped in plastic) from the mold. Gently unwrap the cake. The cake can be served whole on a serving platter garnished with orange slices or kumquats, or can be sliced.

Each serving: 433 calories; 7 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 29 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 127 mg. cholesterol; 81 mg. sodium.

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Online video

Step-by-step instructions on how to make chocolate cake with hazelnut semifreddo are at www.latimes.com/food.

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