There was a time when tortoni stood right there alongside the best of them. As some baby boomers might remember, in its heyday it was a staple on the dessert menu of any red sauce restaurant worth its salt and the highlight at the end of a family-style meal. Over the years, it became somewhat of a misfit dessert, overshadowed and later pushed off menus completely by the popularity of its richer and more luscious cousins. If you ask, it might still be found lingering in the shadows of your favorite Italian restaurant’s freezer, at least I know that’s the way in New York.
My dad is the only person I know that regularly requests tortoni by name. For him, it brings back memories of my grandpa’s ice cream factory in Brooklyn in the mid-sixties, where as a kid he would watch and occasionally sneak a few of the fresh tortoni that were always being made there. Whenever he is lucky enough to get his hands on the dessert today he is rewarded with a taste of his childhood. Of course, it’s never quite the same. Asking for a tortoni these days will yield one of two results: The server with either look at you like you have five heads, or will bring you one that appears as though it’s been sitting in the freezer for the last fifty years. In the tortoni I’ve come to know, frostbite is practically one of the ingredients.
Tortoni, also known as biscuit tortoni, has a pretty vague history. It’s been around for quite some time, but has phased in and out of popularity over the years. According to this article from a 2009 issue of New York Times Magazine, it is speculated that the frozen dessert was created in the early 19th century by a Neopolatin man named Guiseppe Tortoni who owned the popular Café Tortoni in Paris and it was all the rage. It reached its peak in America in the mid-19th century then all but disappeared except for a brief resurgence in the mid-20th century. Well I say it’s about time for another tortoni revival!
To create my tortoni, I made frozen custard with a classic crème anglaise/vanilla sauce base and spiked it with amaretto for the distinct almond flavor that the dessert is known for. Amaretto adds a smoother, more refined taste, and is less in-your-face than the generic flavor of almond extract. For the topping, I used a mixture of crumbled toasted almonds and amaretti cookies. Amaertti cookies are like little almond macaroons; they are the “biscuit” in “biscuit tortoni” and they can be found in specialty Italian markets. Of course, it has to be served in a paper cup with a maraschino cherry or else you can just forget about it all together. And no frostbite is included, thank you very much. It’s a perfect little after dinner palate cleanser. Viva il tortoni!
Tortoni (Amaretto Ice Cream Cups)
Yield: 12 cups
- ½ cup blanched almonds, toasted and cooled
- ½ cup amaretti cookie
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 1 vanilla bean
- 9 ounces egg yolks (about 14 eggs)
- ¼ cup amaretto or more to taste (can substitute with almond extract; add 1 teaspoon at a time, tasting after each addition until desired flavor is reached)
- 12 paper squeeze cups (like the ones used for Italian ices)
- 12 maraschino cherries, drained, rinsed and dried
1) Either manually or using a food processor, finely crush the blanched almonds and amaretti cookies separately; mix together to combine and set aside. Prepare an ice bath with a strainer and metal bowl/container nearby.
2) To make the ice cream base, combine the milk, heavy cream, salt, and ½ cup of the sugar in a small saucepan. Scrape out the inside of the vanilla bean and add to the mixture along with the pods. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks with the remaining ½ cup of sugar until well blended.
3) To temper the egg yolks, gradually add about 1/3 of the hot milk, whisking constantly. Return the tempered egg to the remaining hot milk mixture in the saucepan and continue cooking until the mixture thickens just enough to coat the back of a spoon. You will know you’ve reached the right consistency, when you can make a clean line across the back of the spoon with your finger.
4) Strain the sauce into the metal bowl/container over the prepared ice bath to chill. At this point, add the amaretto. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours until thoroughly cooled.
5) Using an ice cream machine, prepare the ice cream according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Add the ice cream to the paper squeeze cups and top with the crushed toasted almond/amaretti cookie. Freeze for about 2 hours before topping each with a cherry so that they don’t sink. Freeze several hours more, then enjoy. Wrap individually and keep stored in the freezer for a delicious dessert any time.