Tortoni – The Rest of the Story

Quick Tortoni

Quick Tortoni

My May 30 In The Kitchen column hasn’t been posted on the Packet website yet, so I am pasting in the text below. And I want to tell you the rest of the story. (Update: the story now appears here.)

My friend’s mother’s book, The Friendly Cook, has now been published and is for sale on, and it’s even a “Prime” item. The reason I knew about the book, which I didn’t mention in my column, is that my friend, author Judith McNally, and her sister decided it would be fun to have a food writer’s blurb on the back cover. When she sent me the link to, so I could decide if this might be something I wanted to do, I was quite taken with the essays and recipes on the site. So, on a lark, I went ahead and wrote a blurb, trying to mimic the typical tone of such things, and they loved it! And I loved doing it, which was a privilege, really, for something I enjoyed reading so much – Happy birthday Evelyn Stewart!

Tortoni and Semifreddos (Published May 30, in the Princeton Packet)

I was recently reminded of tortoni, an old-time favorite dessert, when a friend pointed me to her mother’s website of family recipes and reminisces, My friend’s sister is making this into a book for Mom’s 94th birthday.

The Friendly Cook

The Friendly Cook

The site provides a lively record (with wonderfully pithy remarks) of raising a family during the mid-1900s. When I saw Biscuit Tortoni, I remembered how I’d grown to love it during family dinners in Trenton’s Chambersburg Italian restaurants. Lovers of the toasted almond flavors of Amaretto liqueur and crunchy amaretti cookies will understand.

Tortoni was created in the late 1800s and named after the Italian owner of a Parisian café. Originally the darling of posh restaurants, by the 1950s it was ubiquitous in red sauce Italian restaurants as Biscuit Tortoni (i.e. made from cookies). Today it’s been supplanted on menus by tiramisu, a more recent creation (meh).

My father made tortoni at least once, and the recipe he used relied on chopped almonds and almond extract. But if you want to make tortoni, seek out a package of those crunchy amaretti cookies in any well-stocked supermarket (McCaffrey’s has them) or Italian market. It does not have to be the expensive ones wrapped in tissue paper.

Now, tortoni is a kind of semifreddo, a semi-frozen dessert that is a lot like homemade ice cream, but easier since you don’t need to churn it. Semifreddos start with a custard base of eggs and cream. Then you incorporate the desired add-ins or flavoring along with whipped cream, and maybe egg whites. Unlike ice cream, semifreddo is  meant to be served after freezing for just a couple of hours, or at least allowed to soften before serving. Many recipes use uncooked eggs, but if that is a concern to you, pick a recipe with a cooked base like Arthur Schwartz’s Limoncello variation below.

Semifreddo add-ins can be liqueurs, fruit, nuts, nougat, leftover cake – heck, you could freeze tiramisu and call it semifreddo. Some of the variations I found online include ginger and peaches with gingersnaps, Meyer lemon with berries, chocolate, glazed nuts, and shortcuts like leftover fruitcake layered with softened ice cream. The variations are endless and once you have your basic recipe down, you can let your creativity take over. You name it, it’s all fair game. Yes, even bacon!

Biscuit Tortoni

Liberally adapted from

This recipe uses egg white, but no yolk, which is unusual. F.B.

Crumble enough amaretti cookies for ¾ cup of fine crumbs.

Whip 1 cup of heavy cream. Fold in 1/4 cup of powdered sugar. Fold in 1 stiffly beaten egg white, alternately with 1/2 cup of cookie crumbs. Add 2 teaspoons of sherry (or Amaretto or Marsala), or a little vanilla instead, if you are cooking for the PTA.

Pack the mixture into 2 ounce paper cups, sprinkle the top with cookie crumbs. Put half a maraschino or candied cherry on top of each serving. Freeze without stirring.

The author says: I made no attempt to double this recipe. I just kept making it day after day. I set them into muffin tins and cupcake tins to freeze. After each batch was frozen I packed them in boxes covered with aluminum foil.

Quick Tortoni

Adapted from several sources

Here’s a mash-up of versions that starts with a base of good vanilla bean ice cream. The addictive results are in the photo you see here.

Soften a quart of high-quality vanilla ice cream in a bowl and blend to eliminate frozen lumps. Mix in 2 teaspoons of almond extract.

Whip 1 cup of heavy cream with one or two tablespoons of Amaretto (or other) liqueur. Fold in 3/4 cup dry amaretti crumbs and 1/2 cup of toasted almond slices (or chopped or slivered almonds). Fold whipped cream mixture into ice cream.

Put into fluted paper cups or ramekins and freeze 2 hours. When serving, add a half a maraschino or candied cherry, a sprinkle of amaretti crumbs, and maybe some toasted slivered almonds. You can also freeze it as a loaf and serve it sliced, or repack it into the ice cream tub (you’ll need an extra container for overflow), and serve directly from there, after letting it soften a bit to bring out the flavors.

Coviglia al Caffé

(Coffee Semifreddo)

Adapted from “Naples at Table,” Arthur Schwartz, William Morrow (1998)

Serves 6-8

“Coviglia” refers to the little cup in which this dessert is traditionally served.

4 whole eggs, separated

1/4 cup very strong espresso or 2 teaspoons espresso powder, dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water

1 cup superfine sugar

1 cup heavy cream

In a mixing bowl, beat egg yolks, gradually adding half the sugar, until they are light and lemon colored. Dissolve remaining sugar in the coffee, then blend the mixture into the egg yolks.

In another bowl, beat cream until it hold soft peaks, then fold the whipped cream into the coffee-egg mixture. In a clean bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the mousse base.

Pour into individual cups and freeze for about 2 hours, until firm but not rock hard. If keeping frozen for longer, take them out of the freezer to soften somewhat before serving.

Limoncello version: This uses a cooked zabaglione-type base. Whisk 4 whole eggs with 3/4 cup sugar, zest of a lemon, and 3 tablespoons Limoncello. Place in a double-boiler and keep whisking over simmering water until mixture thickens. Do not let it boil! Remove from heat and set aside to cool while you whip the cream. Whip 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream until stiff with an additional tablespoon of Limoncello, and fold into the cooled egg mixture. Put into ramekins or a loaf pan, and freeze 2 or more hours.









One thought on “Tortoni – The Rest of the Story

  1. This used to be my favorite dessert, Faith, yes, in the 60’s, because it was tiny and full of flavor and so creamy. It never entered my mind that one could make it — I who did not hesitate at genoise, ignored this possibility. Thanks for making what I thought was called bisque tortoni come alive anew!


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