Instead of making pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving this year, I am bringing Pumpkin Semifreddo to my sister-in-law’s. It’s a riff on one of the desserts we had last week in Asheville and given that we devoured 8 of them in record time, I am pretty sure his family will also appreciate the change. It’s cold, creamy, mousse-like with a nice crunch from the gluten free streudel on top. Makes me think of Fall with every bite.
I have always had a soft spot for Asheville during Fall and Winter. When we lived in upstate SC, we would take the beautiful mountain roads and drive around the area, always making a pit stop in there. We had an impromptu getaway in Asheville one Christmas years ago and I dragged B. through the gallery of gingerbread houses on display at The Grove Park Inn. I knew there had been a competition. I had no idea I’d be judging it one day, 5 years later! And with a beautiful friend and work peer as my traveling companion to boot.
Arriving at The Grove Park always makes me feel like I have steppped back in time, somewhere around 1935 when F. Scott Fitzgerald could have been my almost neighbor in room 441 (we were in room 552). Truly a special place, yet one that evolved perfectly with time and where people are the embodiement of Southern hospitality. Fun, gracious, never stuffy and most of all with some of the best foods and drinks around.
I love the view out my kitchen but waking up with this everyday made me rubb my eyes quite a few times. Was I dreaming? What do they put in those drinks that one is constantly beaming to be so peacefully there? Wait, don’t answer that one.
Maybe it’s the food. Maybe it’s the mountain air. On Saturday night, we all gathered for a "Meet&Greet" among the judges and were treated to some fabulous finger foods prepared in the nick of time by one of the hotel kitchens. Crab salad shooters, various kinds of sushi, potstickers, sliders, shots of lemon mousse and Tiramisu. A special drinks menu prepared just for us and greatly enjoyed by yours truly. The Gingerbread White Russian was as close to liquid dessert as one can get. Don’t be fooled though…they hit you like a brick about an hour later.
In hindsight I am quite glad I started the day with a virgin Bloody Mary at Corner Kitchen and burned a couple of calories walking through the River Arts District with Tami and Dodie whom we met on our previous trip there (from Asheville CVB).
Yes, there is something magical about The Grove Park this time of year and if you are a sucker for holidays, Christmas, trees and ornaments as much as I am, you will be in heaven walking through the hotel right now. There is a tree in front of every window, each with its own theme. Whether you are a coffee or vintage addict to a Santa and gingerbread figurine lover, you are sure to find a tree for you!
My head was spinning at every corner of the hotel with all this whimsy! Glad I found a compass to navigate my way around, down the stairs, up the elevator, around the piano bar and back to our room!
Actually, this much fun is highly conducive to good nights of sleep. I sleep very little and yet I had no problem here putting my brain to rest, close my eyes and sleep a full night. This proved extremely important for the reason I was there in the first place: judging the National Gingerbread House Competition™. Yeah! Get to work Helen! Stop having that much fun with trees! Trust me, this is not an affair taken lightly by anybody. From the competitors entering, to the staff wheeling the houses in the main ballroom to the judges, armed with clipboards and scoring sheets.
One random thing that hit me around noon is that I should have had more than coffee that morning. After looking at two full rows of houses, the smell of gingerbread was making my stomach growl and my concentration weep. We had 5 criteria on which to base our scores and we took plenty of time to evaluate each and every house thoroughly (from 9.30am to 4.30pm).
There are times when putting the camera down is appropriate, especially when you are surrounded with such seriousness as Colette Peters, Nicholas Lodge, Mark Seaman and Steve Stellingwerf pointing to you the latest trends and techniques. To be honest, just to hear the words pastillage and wafer paper was sending me back years ago when I use to eat, drink and sleep that stuff for work and I *had* to put the camera gear to the side.
I did however sneaked in toward the end and while a hired team was taking full shots of the houses, I wanted to focus on the details and the artistry behind some houses. These are some of my favorites in design and whimsy although they did not make it to my top picks as they did not have enough "gingerbread" elements which is what we had come here to judge. Sometimes you have to put your heart waves aside and focus on that spread sheet. The grand prize and other winners in each category can be viewed here.
I did marvel at The Fruitcake House (pictured above). All the details were blowing me away. From the floor tiling to the cracked eggs on the work table, the nonpareilles, the fruit cake tally chalk boards and so forth and so on.
Another one I admired was the first place winner. It reminded me of the of A Christmas Story and the details were so whimsical and aesthetically perfect that everyone had to stop and admire that one. For some judges, there was "not enough gigerbread" to win Grand Prize for others, it was "the one". Yeah, I know, we’re tough, but in the wash-out of scoring and tabulating, I think that we indeed picked all the houses that deserved to be in the Top 10.
I just love the aesthetics and color scheme of that one!
It was a long and exhausting day but we were rewarded with a fantastic dinner at Horizons where I had the chance to sit across Colette and Steve and talk shop, sugar and cake for a few hours. I was also blown away by Mark’s fluent French and truly envy his yearly excursion to France to tour Patisseries.
Before I get to the recipe I want to extend a huge "Thank You" to my fellow judges, to Jeff, Brian "The Gingerbread Man", Susan, Ron and Rick who made our stay so pleasant and memorable. You guys know your stuff and do it well. Bravo.
We have had many reasons to feel lost this year but we have many more reasons to be grateful, starting with our family, our friends and your constant support and visits. Thank You. Have a fantastic Thanksgiving!
Now…let’s talk Pumpkin Semifreddo…
During our lavish dinner at Horizons at The Grove Park Inn, we were presented with a delicious selection of desserts, some I had had the pleasure to make before and one that made everyone ask for more, the Pumpkin Semifreddo. I did not ask for a recipe because it is pretty straightforward to reproduce and instead of doing a full blown plated dessert as we had that night, I served mine in jars and other ramekins for a more casual presentation.
For the semifreddo:
1 cup (250ml) heavy cream
3 tablespoons (65gr)honey (I like wildflower the best)
2 tablespoons (25gr) sugar
2 tablespoons water
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup (120gr) pumkin puree (I used canned as I was making 150 of these for a catered event but feel free to make your own puree from fresh and cooked pumpkin)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
For the crumble topping:
1/2 cup (80 gr) sweet brown rice flour
1/4 cup tapioca (30gr) flour
1/4 cup sorghum (30gr) flour
1/2 cup (100 gr) light packed brown sugar
1/2 stick (55 gr) unsalted butter, softened
Prepare the Semifreddo:
In the bowl of a stand mixer equipped with the whisk attachment or hand held one with ballon whisks, beat the cream until it just holds soft peaks. Refrigerate it while you prepare the base of the ice cream. Wash your bowl and whisk attachment.
In a heavy saucepan, stir together the honey, sugar, and the water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Since you are not making caramel, it is ok to stir occasionally until the sugar is dissolved. Let it boil and bring the mixture registers 238°F on a candy thermometer.
This second part is easier to do with a hand held mixer than a KA for example since the quantity of egg yolks is small and the bowl tends to be deep in some models. It works, have no fear…it’s just easier with a hand held one.
In the clean bowl of your mixer, still using the whisk attachment, beat the yolks for a minute to loosen them up. Reduce speed to medium and pour the hot honey mixture in a steady stream over them. Go fast enough to prevent the eggs from scrambling but not so fast that you end up with most of the syrup on the wall of the bowl or the whisk. Continue to whip at medium-high speed until the mass is completely cold and airy.
Fold about one third of the chilled whipped cream into the semifreddo base to loosen it up and make it easier to incorporate homogeneously. Add the pumkin puree, the spices and the remaining whipped cream and fold until everything is incorporated.
Divide mixture evenly among dishes cover with plastic wrap and freeze until set.
Prepare the topping:
Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a medium bowl, blend the flours, sugar and butter with your fingertips or a pastry cutter to form large clumps of dough. Lay them on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool to room temperature before breaking the clumps into smaller crumbs.
When ready to serve, take the ramekins out of the freezer 15 to 20 minutes ahead of time so they have a "half frozen' consistency and top each semifreddo with some crumble and some whipped cream if desired.
[Full Disclosure] As a guest of The Grove Park Inn, I did not pay for the room and dinners (friday through monday). Any meals and drinks that were not part of the group scheduled ones (saturday brunch-nightcaps at the hotel) were paid by me. I drove my own little self there, on my own little gas money.