More than one cook has wrestled with what kind of dessert to make for a dinner party. The impulse is to create something fancy. But often what people want is a familiar, reliably delicious finale. Banana pudding semifreddo is the perfect solution.
The recipe comes from Kristen Hall, the pastry chef who owns the Essential, an all-day café in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, with her business partner, Victor King. Hall wanted to create a dessert that had everything she loved about traditional banana pudding, especially pudding-soaked vanilla wafers, but that fit the Italian sensibility of the restaurant. Her semifreddo, which translates to half or partially frozen, nailed it. Infused with banana puree and ribbons of salted caramel, it lies somewhere between a mousse and ice cream.
“We like to take things that are very nostalgic and turn them into a surprise with texture or ingredients or even presentations,” Hall says. To serve the semifreddo, you can turn it onto a tray and cut it into slices, or do what they do at the restaurant: Scoop some into a coupe glass and drizzle on extra salted caramel.
Hall came late to baking. She has a master’s in public health and was working in health care until 2013 before deciding to pursue a career as a pastry chef. “I love the formulaic nature of it,” she says. “I feel like I understand it, or it understands me.” She began by dropping baked goods at the homes of friends and neighbors with her two young daughters, which grew into her first venture, Baking Bandits. What was once a darling of the local farmers’ market and pop-ups became Bandit Pâtisserie, which she also owns with King and is located down the street from the Essential.
Her semifreddo recipe calls for homemade caramel sauce and a double boiler to create the crème anglaise, which is just another name for what some Southerners might call drinking custard. Don’t be intimidated. All that’s required is a bit of patience and a methodical approach to putting it together. Once you get the technique down, Hall suggests playing with the flavors. She likes the idea of mint chocolate chip crème anglaise with chocolate sandwich cookies, or substituting pumpkin for banana and adding warm pie spices and ginger cookies.
“People always say, ‘Baking freaks me out,’ but I think people sometimes overcomplicate things,” she says. “Semifreddo is a wonderful example of a pretty straightforward recipe that you can make in advance and then pull it out and be a superhero.”