The semester I spent in Italy was accompanied by a multitude of emotions, experiences and milestones but in the simplest of terms – I was full. Yes, full of the wonderful food of course but also of so much else. Full of that unique mix of excitement, fear and anticipation that accompanies your arrival to a foreign country in which you plan to live for the next five months. I was a 20-year-old college student and had just shared a heart-wrenching goodbye with my boyfriend, laughed at and reassured my crying mother as I walked through security and spent the last nine hours smashed in coach between a strange man bent on using me as a pillow and a woman who rolled her eyes every time I rose to use the restroom.
My suitcases were filled to the brims with a few items I would undoubtedly need and in hindsight, more things I would not. Those frivolous things made their presence known as I climbed the three stories of terracotta stairs to my host family’s old Florence residence. The Rovai’s apartment looked more like a museum than a home. Paintings framed in ornate gold and silver adorned the walls from floor to ceiling and antique furniture lent every room a sense of history and authority. I had never seen anything like it in the homes of my friends and neighbors back in Virginia but to my delight would soon discover that the Rovai home was typical by Floretian standards.
Three nights a week Senora Rovai paraded out dishes filled with homemade lasagna, oven-baked bell peppers with capers and breadcrumbs, tiny tortellini stuffed with roasted eggplant and a seemingly endless variety of fruit tarts and torrone. My American roommate and I’s polite declines of second, third and fourth helpings fell on deaf ears as she whirled around the table dispensing more spoonfuls with orders of “MANGIA!” After dinner we often lay side by side moaning happily in our fullness and laughing at how fat we would be upon our return to the U.S.
I came to Florence a vegetarian but in the shadows of butcher counters all over the city, I devoured samples of contraband prosciutto, soppressata and salami. Between classes, I loved getting lost on the narrow medieval streets – stumbling upon street musicians, a flag festival in the Piazza Santa Croce, a carnival filled with candied apples the size of my head and an impromptu concert of monks in a church with the doors flung wide open. Best of all, even on the most deserted streets – a gelateria could be be found and no matter the time of day or the temperature outside, I stopped for a cupful.
On those long, solitary walks I was always in good company. I stuffed handfuls of Baci candies into my bag and let them melt on my tongue as I read the quirky Italian fortunes and proverbs that lay hidden inside. Baci and I first met in the airport and had been inseparable ever since. Fortunately for me, the prevalence of these candies in Italy is widespread and they fill the shelves of every convenience store, cafe or street vendor.
So when I saw a recipe for chocolate hazelnut ice cream in The Perfect Scoop I developed an overwhelming craving for those long walks with me, myself, and Baci. Below is a recipe I developed with base recipes and technique from the wonderful David Lebovitz. This recipe is slightly time consuming in that it requires several stages of shaping and freezing however, the end result is well worth it and makes for a perfectly portable and sweet finish to an informal cookout or warm weather get together.
Baci Bon Bons
For the ice cream:
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz
2 cups hazelnuts
1 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
4 oz milk chocolate, chopped
5 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/8 tsp vanilla extract
5 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
For the chocolate coating:
6 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
6 Tbs unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 Tbs light corn syrup
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the 2 cups of hazelnuts in a single layer on a sheet pan and toast in the oven for 12 minutes. Carefully slide the warm hazelnuts onto a clean dish towel and rub vigorously to remove most of the papery skins. Place 1 1/2 cups of the hazelnuts (reserving 1/2 cup of whole nuts) into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
2. Warm the milk with 1 cup of heavy cream, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan until sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add the chopped hazelnuts. Cover and let steep for 1 hour.
3. Place the chopped milk chocolate in a bowl and heat the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream to a simmer. Pour the warm cream over the milk chocolate and stir the mixture until chocolate is melted and smooth.
4. Once done steeping, pour the hazelnut and milk mixture through a strainer into a medium saucepan and squeeze the hazelnuts to extract all the liquid. Discard the nuts.* Re-warm the hazelnut-infused milk and pour a little bit of the milk mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, to temper. Once tempered, pour the milk and egg mixture back into the saucepan and and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens.
5. Pour the custard through a strainer and into the milk chocolate mixture. Add the vanilla and chill in the refrigerator overnight. Before freezing in your ice cream maker, melt the bittersweet chocolate over a double boiler. Then freeze the chilled ice cream base in your ice cream maker according to it’s directions. Just before the ice cream finishes, pour the melted bittersweet chocolate in a very thin stream, through the opening in the top of the ice cream maker. The churning combined with the cold temperature will freeze the chocolate on contact and break it into small chips. Pour the ice cream into a container and freeze thoroughly in your freezer.
6. Place a parchment covered sheet pan in your freezer. Once chilled, remove ice cream and sheet pan from the freezer and quickly scoop out uniform scoops with an ice cream or cookie dough scooper. Place scoops on the chilled sheet pan and put them back in the freezer for 10 minutes. Gently push one whole hazelnut into the top of each scoop and continue to let them freeze solid for 1-2 hours.
7. In a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, melt all the ingredients for the chocolate coating together – the bittersweet chocolate, butter and corn syrup. Allow the chocolate mixture to cool slightly at room temperature for 30 minutes. Then, using two spoons, quickly dunk the scoops of ice cream into the chocolate to coat and place back on the cold sheet pan. If your ice cream begins to melt pop it back into the freezer for a few minutes, working in batches, if necessary. Once all are coated, put them back in the freezer to harden and then serve! Makes approximately 10 bon bons.
*Note: While the steeping process does impart a strong hazelnut flavor, next time I plan on leaving some of the chopped nuts in the ice cream for added flavor and texture.