Illustration for article titled Spumoni is a perfect blend of imperfections
Image: Jimmy Hasse

As a kid, whenever I was behaving well I’d get a few quarters to run to the corner pizzeria for an Italian ice. When I was extra good, I’d get a buck to blow at the ice cream truck. And when I was really good, we’d get to go out for spumoni. Technically, spumoni is “molded gelato” festooned with candied fruits and nuts, and every spumoni recipe I’ve ever seen is little more than “stick three ice creams in a bowl, boom, you’re done.” But what I used to get at my beloved Spumoni Gardens was nothing of the sort—this spumoni was entirely its own thing, and since I moved out of Brooklyn, I haven’t tasted anything that comes close. This means that I’ve been trying for years to unravel a mystery: why does my favorite spumoni on earth taste nothing like the cookbooks say it should?

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I realized the key to spumoni isn’t the flavor, but the texture, which is a bit like an icy sherbet with a smattering of chopped pistachios. I wondered if perhaps it was made without any egg yolks, or if, before it was churned in an ice cream maker, the custard was watered down a bit to produce an icier texture. Then a few weeks ago I was sitting outside with my husband on a furiously hot day, reminiscing about how difficult it was to work in our old bakery during the summer, and it hit me like a ton of bricks: the secret to making the best spumoni in the entire world isn’t about special ingredients, it’s about making it “wrong.”

Making frozen desserts is all about managing the size and shape of ice crystals; that’s why you can’t simply throw a bowl of custard into the freezer to make ice cream. In an ice cream churn, custard turns into tiny ice crystals as it sloshes onto the walls of the frozen internal chamber, then quickly gets scraped off by a constantly rotating dasher, resulting in a fluffy, creamy dessert made of millions of microscopic crystals surrounding tiny bubbles of air. Now, think about what happens when you let a pint of ice cream sit out a bit too long and then you put it back in the freezer—the melted crystals will refreeze into larger, icier crystals, and the texture is completely transformed.

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Now, Spumoni Gardens is a nice joint, but it’s not high tech by any means: the place was built in 1939, and you can get a full view of the excruciatingly hot, poorly vented kitchen that’s constantly churning out (in addition to spumoni) some of New York’s most famous pizzas. It’s also perpetually busy, so the freezers are opened and closed hundreds of times a day, and when employees are packing fresh spumoni into buckets, even the most skilled ice cream man is powerless against the blistering Bensonhurst sun. Regular spumoni is preciously churned so it’s smooth and silky, but it turns out that the best spumoni is a race between a chef and the elements, where the mistakes make it better than 99% of the stuff you’d want to eat on a hot summer’s day.

Just as sometimes you can make a recipe work by subbing out one ingredient for another, you can figure out how to engineer your dream spumoni by swapping out one mistake for another. In this case, my problem is that I don’t own an ice cream maker. I do have a food processor, and I’ve heard of people using them to make “less than perfect” ice creams by pureeing chunks of frozen custard. I played around with a few different bases, finally settling on a milk-heavy gelato custard that’s a bit richer than the Spumoni Gardens version thanks to the addition of egg yolks. After freezing my three flavors in plastic bags I broke each flat sheet of custard into chunks, processed them, and like accidental magic, I had something very close to ideal. Even more large ice crystals developed during the final stage, as I frantically scooped the three quickly melting gelatos into their storage containers. Twenty-four hours later, I finally got to eat “real” spumoni.

If there’s a moral to this dessert, it’s not to get too caught up in everyone else’s definition of perfection. Remember to always pay attention to your mistakes. You’d be surprised at how often they’ll lead you to something miraculous.


Illustration for article titled Spumoni is a perfect blend of imperfections
Photo: Allison Robicelli
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Spumoni

For the creamolata:

  • 3/4 cup raw slivered almonds
  • 1/2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla paste

For the pistachio:

  • 1 1/4 cups raw pistachios
  • 1/2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp. vanilla paste
  • Green gel food coloring, to your desired shade

For the chocolate:

  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup Dutch processed cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp. vanilla paste

Before you begin, make an ice bath: fill your largest bowl or pot halfway with ice, sprinkle a few tablespoons of kosher salt over it, then nestle a slightly-smaller (but still large) bowl into the ice. Fill a cup with cold water and pour it in the space between the two bowls until the ice bath is 80% full, then set it aside, close to the stove.

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Make the creamolata

Add the almonds and butter to large saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the almonds are golden brown. Remove about two tablespoons of the almonds to a small bowl and set aside. Pour the milk, cream, sugar, salt, and egg yolks into the saucepan and use an immersion blender to for a full minute to puree the almonds. Turn the heat to high and cook, whisking continuously, until the mixture comes to a boil, then immediately pour it into the bowl set in the ice bath and continue to whisk constantly until the custard is no longer hot to the touch—about 3 minutes or so. Whisk in the vanilla paste.

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Pour the custard into a gallon-sized ziptop bag (it helps to have a second set of hands for this part), then squeeze out all the air from the bag and seal it tightly. Lay flat in a baking dish, then put into the freezer. You can fold a length of duct tape over the bag’s opening to make sure it’s good and sealed.

Make the pistachio

After washing your equipment and refreshing the ice bath, repeat the above instructions using the ingredients for the pistachio gelato, reserving a few spoonfuls of toasted pistachios in the same bowl with the toasted almonds, and whisking in green food coloring while it cools in the ice bath. Once the pistachio custard is sealed in a ziptop bag, lay it flat on top of the bag with the creamolata base in the freezer.

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Make the chocolate

You’re an expert on how to do this by this point, aren’t you? Dump everything but the vanilla into the pot, whisk, boil, chill, add vanilla, and into a ziptop bag it goes. Lay it right on top of the pistachio and creamolata bags, make sure the pan they’re sitting in is as level as possible, then let them freeze overnight.

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Time to process

Before you begin, make sure you have three medium bowls or a whole bunch of resealable plastic containers ready to go on the countertop. Once you start working with the ice cream, you have to move fast to keep it from melting. Do whatever you can to keep your kitchen cool, because if you try doing this while it’s the least bit hot in there, you’re going to have a bad time. Also, you’re definitely going to get your hands dirty, so if you’re squeamish about these things, wear disposable gloves. All good? Great!

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Set up your food processor with the standard blade. Take one bag of frozen custard out of the freezer, cut away the bag with kitchen shears, and break the custard into chunks that will fit inside the food processor. Pulse a few times to break everything up, then process on high for about 30 seconds until completely smooth. Working very quickly, use a silicone spatula to move the gelato into a bowl/plastic containers, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface, then put it back into the freezer. Clean out the food processor and repeat with the two other flavors, then leave everything in the freezer for at least 20 minutes to firm up a bit.

Make the spumoni

Use a chef’s knife to roughly chop the toasted almonds and pistachios. Grab yourself some reusable freezer-safe containers (I’m always a fan of the classic quart container, of which you’ll need four) and grab your largest ice cream scoop (I have multiple sizes, all from this site, and they do a hell of a lot more than just scoop ice cream).

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Put a scoop of pistachio ice cream in each container, followed by creamolata, then chocolate, and then a sprinkling of nuts. Tap each container on the counter a few times to help the gelato settle, then repeat until all the spumoni is packaged. Freeze until ready to eat.

Allison Robicelli is The Takeout staff writer, a former professional chef, author of three books, and The People's Hot Pocket Princess. Questions about recipes/need cooking advice? Tweet @Robicellis.

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