I was holed up in a strange apartment, my legs were swollen and I was quivering with pain. The sweltering heat pulsed from wall to floor to ceiling without mercy or regret. It wasn’t just hot. It was an inferno. I had been in Italy for mere hours and was already living out the trip from hell.
If you've ever been to Florence in the summertime then it probably didn’t take much time to realize you made a very big mistake. Unfortunately, it's usually too late.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only female college student to study abroad in Italy that summer. In fact, I was one of about 7,000. From the minute I stepped off the plane, instead of the sexy accents and beautiful people I was expecting, all I heard was loud American girls yapping in bad English. (And this was long before Jersey Shore ever hit it big.)
I eventually settled into my beautiful but warm apartment on Via della Vigna Nuova, giddy with anticipation of the months to come. Sure, the no-air conditioning thing was going to be an adjustment, but I was from Alabama. I should be fine, right?
Five mosquito bites later and I found myself in a cold sweat. (I am a bug magnet in the South, but I hadn’t realized my “sweet skin” would follow me across the globe.) It wasn’t until dizziness set in that I began to worry. My best friend contacted our study abroad director, and pretty soon I was lying in a bed having a diagnosis translated to me: I was massively allergic to this new (to me) strain of insects buzzing around. Apparently having the Arno as my backyard was going to be a bad thing.
Two days and an emergency case of Avon Skin-So-Soft later (not too mention some hefty International shipping fees), my body started building up immunity to the pesky little beasts. Once my welts went down and I felt “de-puffed” enough to explore, it was time to celebrate on the town.
My pal and I hit the bustling city streets, wading through the droves of tourists (funny how we never considered ourselves tourists) in search of our Italian fairytale — we were two young explorers on the quest for adventure. We didn’t make it very far. The thick Florentine stone reacted to the blistering Tuscan sun very much like a wood-burning oven. Unfortunately, it felt like we were the pizza.
We sought solace in a nearby gelateria, and it was there I unexpectedly experienced my first sweet taste of love. I was taken by surprise as a charming older gentleman smiled and offered me a kiss. Pardon me? I mean, I’d heard Italian men were forward, but this was a little much. I shot him my best you-are-creepy glance and looked down. “A kiss. A kiss for the beautiful lady.” Just as I thought about slapping him, he winked and handed me a tiny scoop from behind the counter. “Bacio. I give a kiss to you, mio amore.” I couldn’t resist the temptation. And yes, what a wonderfully delicious kiss it was. The rich dark chocolate and toasty hazelnut formed the perfect marriage of flavor, and it was then my lifelong affair with gelato began.
I spent the rest of my summer looking forward to more stolen “kisses” with my “gelato man.” No mosquitos, no loud American girls (myself excluded), and no scorching temperatures could come between that bond. Of course I wasn’t exclusive. I sampled them all. But I always came back to bacio. And I still do.
It’s been years, but I finally nailed a version of my own perfect “kiss.” It doesn’t come with the flirtatious fellow, but until my next (winter!) trip to Florence, it will have to do. So now I’ll just take another bite and think back fondly on my summer romance with a dessert. I’m pretty sure that’s an affair to remember.
Chocolate & Hazelnut Praline Gelato
Makes 1 quart
2 cups whole or 2% milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons hazelnut praline paste (See Recipe Notes)
3 tablespoons good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder (See Recipe Notes)
2 ounces good-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
5 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
Combine milk, cream, and hazelnut paste in a heavy sauce pan and cook over medium heat until bubbling gently. Add cocoa powder and chocolate; whisk until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar, and salt with a handheld mixer on high speed until mixture is pale yellow and thickened, about 2 minutes. Add a cup of hot chocolate mixture to the eggs and whisk vigorously. Pour the tempered (warmed) eggs back into the sauce pan with the remaining chocolate mixture.
Reduce heat to low/medium-low. Whisking frequently, cook until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon (180° to 185° on an instant-read thermometer). Remove from the heat. Stir in vanilla and continue stirring for another minute or so to release some of the heat.
Chill the mixture in the refrigerator until cooled completely, stirring occasionally, at least two hours or overnight. Freeze the base in an ice cream machine until it has reached a custard consistency (this took about 26 minutes in my standard Cuisinart), adding the chopped hazelnuts about 5 minutes into the churning process. Transfer the gelato to a freezer-safe container and freeze until firm.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)