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Where cool meets finesse

Coviglia al caffe and other treats can be made in advance and finished with flair. It's elegance made easy.

May 21, 2008|Amy Scattergood and Donna Deane | 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.

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