Basil ice with pine nut biscuits and lemon caramel

Pesto – but dessert

Oh, Italy… Country that so many people love because of its history, culture, art, fashion, food… It certainly is a country that I also always feel like visiting every so often. I am personally really attracted to the south of Italy, which is in general less frequently visited than the north. There is beautiful Sicily, with its impressive volcano the Etna. There is Napoli, where the pizzas are so good you won´t find their equals anywhere else. There is Bari where you can stroll through the old streets at night and feel like you go back in time. And there is much more.

But the north of the country is also amazing and there is a lot to discover. One of the larger cities, and capital of the region Liguria, is the harbour city Genoa. During the middle ages and renaissance, this city was a very important city-state. Its territory stretched out to the French city of Nice and even included the islands Corsica and Sardinia. Genoa was competing for power and importance with other city-states like its main rival Venice. Unfortunately for the city, wars and disasters like the Black Death reduced its importance. But during the times of prosperity the city attracted many artists and architects. And thanks to them the rich past is still clearly visible in the impressive palaces scattered around the city. In between those villas, there are also old, small streets with little restaurants and bars. The cathedral of the city is located in one of those streets. It´s an imposing black and white striped building. I remember eating the best focaccia ever on the small square in front of it, our hands covered in the delicious olive oil that was dripping from the bread.

One of the times I visited Genoa was during summer, on August 15. This is the day the Italians and other Catholic countries celebrate the Assumption of Mary. Strolling from our hotel, an old monastery, towards the city we saw a beautiful restaurant. It had a terrace with a view all over the sea and the ships passing by. Nowadays you see the ferries and cruise ships instead of the trade ships of old. It is an interesting view, those massive ships, some of which look like floating skyscrapers, in front of the old harbour of Genoa. We were lucky, as surprisingly on this busy public holiday there was still a free table. I don´t remember exactly what the entire menu was, but as a starter we had the most famous dish of the region: pasta with pesto alla genovese.

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Pesto as a sauce is of course famous worldwide. But its roots go back to the Roman times, when a similar cold sauce with herbs was popular. Apparently, the first written recipe of the sauce with pine nuts and basil, as we know it now, dates back to the 19th century (out of a cooking book named La Cuciniera Genovese by Battista Ratto, 1863). Interestingly, the recipe called for a mix of grated Dutch and Parmesan cheese. A nice little surprise, for a Dutch girl like myself. Although there are quite some decent versions of the green sauce that you can buy in jars, home made pesto is still a completely different story. It is so simple, yet so complex in flavour. And that evening in Genoa, the pesto was clearly homemade. The perfect place to enjoy this delicious dish.

Since it currently is summer and quite hot, I wanted to take the inspiration of the pesto I love and change it into a dessert with a cooling and refreshing ice cream. I used the main ingredients of the sauce, except for the garlic. So for this dish the basil is used in the parfait, the pine nuts and olive oil in the biscuits, and the cheese in the form of a crunchy Parmesan cheese tuile.

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Basil parfait with pine nut biscuits, a Parmesan cheese tuile and lemon caramel sauce

Ingredients (dessert for two)

  • Very large bunch of basil – around 200 grams
  • Sugar – around 100 grams
  • 2 egg yolks and 1 whole egg
  • Whipping cream – 60 grams and a bit extra for the sauce
  • 50 grams of pine nuts
  • 1 lemon
  • Baking powder – a teaspoon
  • 30 ml of good extra virgin olive oil
  • 40 grams of flour
  • 20 grams of Parmesan cheese
  • Salt

The day before you want to eat the dessert, start by preparing the parfait. Place three tablespoons of sugar in a small pot with a bit of water, just to cover the sugar, over a low heat. Keep this on the heat until the sugar dissolves and the sugar syrup thickens a bit. Let the sugar syrup cool down. Take the basil leaves off the stalks, the more the better, and blend them until they are chopped very finely. While blending the basil, slowly poor in the sugar syrup. Let this infuse for a few hours.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, whip 60 grams of the cream to soft peaks and place this back in the fridge. Place the 2 egg yolks in a heat proof bowl and whisk them vigorously until the colour is a creamy lighter yellow. Poor the basil infused sugar syrup through a sieve into the egg yolks and whisk it through. Then, place the bowl over the pot of boiling water, so that you have a double boiler. Whisk the egg yolks for at least 5 minutes, until the volume has doubled and it is a creamy and foamy mixture. Take the yolks off the double boiler and keep whisking until it has come down to room temperature. Take the cream out of the fridge and carefully mix the egg yolk mixture through the cream. Divide over two individual ramekins and cover with some plastic foil. Place in the freezer for at least 4 hours or until frozen.

Now it is time to start on the cookies. You can also make them earlier if you want, because they keep well for a few days. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C. Roast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan over a low heat until they are golden brown. Zest the lemon. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, 25 grams of sugar, the baking powder, a pinch of salt, and the lemon zest. Stir the olive oil through the dry ingredients. Whisk the whole egg in a small bowl and start adding this to the mixture. You will need around half the egg to create a stiff, sticky dough. Add the toasted pine nuts to the mixture. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Use a piping bag or a teaspoon to divide the dough in small portions over the tray. Make sure there is enough space between the biscuits, since they will grow quite a bit. Place the tray into the oven and bake for 10 minutes, until golden brown. Take them out of the oven and let them cool down so that they become crispy and yummie.

The last two elements can be made just before serving. For the Parmesan cheese tuile, finely grate the cheese. Place a non-stick frying pan over a low fire. Spread some of the grated Parmesan cheese in a long line in the pan. Make sure the layer is not too thick. The cheese will melt and start bubbling. Once the entire line of cheese is bubbling and starts changing colour, this will take around 2 minutes, take the pan of the heat. Let it cool down a bit and carefully use a pallet knife or other thin tool to take the strip of cheese out of the pan. Lay this over a rolling pin or a wine bottle, so that it will set in a sort of curly shape. Repeat this with the rest of the cheese. It is fairly easy, but might take some trial and error to get it correct.

Finally, prepare the lemon caramel sauce. Juice the lemon of which you have used the zest before. Add the sugar you have left to a small pot with enough water so that the sugar is just covered. Place this pot over a medium fire. You will see it start bubbling first, and then taking on colour quickly. Don´t walk away, because once the caramel starts getting colour it goes fast. When the caramel is golden brown, take it off the heat. The lighter the colour of the caramel, the sweeter, and the further you take it the less sweet and more bitter it will become. Personally, I like quite a dark caramel but I keep it a bit lighter for this sauce, since the sweetness balances out the sourness of the lemon. When the colour is to your liking, stir in enough cream so that it cools down and turns into a thick sauce. Add the lemon juice, around the juice of half a lemon should do. But just try and see how much you like to add.

Now, the time has come to assemble the dish. Take the parfaits out of the freezer and turn over on a plate. Serve with the biscuits, the Parmesan cheese tuile, and the lemon caramel sauce.

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