Thursday, October 27, 2011

Panna Cotta

I have never made panna cotta before or felt the need to learn, until now.  My husband who has quite the sweet tooth would usually get his panna cotta fix from Trader Joes.  They were conveniently boxed in a two pack, just enough to satisfy, and defrosted beautifully into a light and creamy delight with a blueberry and pineapple topping.

Yesterday I stopped by Trader Joes to stock up on some of my husband’s favorite T.J. treats, but I couldn’t find any panna cotta.  So I inquired as to when they would be getting more in.  That’s when I discovered that they were discontinued.  WHAT?  Dang!  That was a huge let down.  I know how much Kono loved those little treats.

As I walked out of the store, feeling defeated, I began to think about what it took to make panna cotta.  Panna cotta had been one of those finds that satisfied Kono’s sweet tooth with very little effort on my part.  What was I going to do?  The only answer was to expand upon my culinary void.  I was determined to figure it out, but I was clueless as to how to make a panna cotta or what they were made of.  I hoped that they wouldn’t be too difficult, but I questioned myself because they tasted as if they would be very touchy feely to make.

It was time to do some research!!!

All my fears faded away when I discovered that panna cotta, an Italian dessert, translates to “cooked cream”, no wonder it’s so delicious.  With further research I discovered that all I needed to make panna cotta was a simple blend of heavy cream, sugar, vanilla and a pack of gelatin.  That’s it.  No eggs or baking or water baths or thermometers.  “How can something that looks and taste so good, be so easy?”

As luck would have it I stumbled upon David Lebovitz’s blog, whose tag reads “Living the sweet life in Paris.”  I wish that was my tag…. 

His words took the mystery out of making panna cotta, when he wrote.
Panna cotta is incredibly easy to make, and if it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you’re doing something wrong. I’d made them before, but never realized what a fool-proof dessert it was until I saw my friend Judy Witts make them at one of her cooking classes in Florence.
Sometimes we Americans have a way of overdramatizing things, and make things harder than they actually are.

His words rang true, so very true, about both the ease of the task and being caught overdramatizing.  Time to get back on track.

I put these Italian "dolce" to bed in about 15 minutes not 5.  But it was my first time.  The best way that I can describe panna cotta, is that it taste like a quality batch of freshly whipped cream with a delicate custardy texture.  I finished my panna cotta with a generous spoonful of blackberry puree that I had in the freezer, but any fruit topping would be delicious.  If you don’t have a topping or want one, plain panna cotta is pretty tasty too.

I decided to cut the recipe in half which was easy to do considering the minimal ingredients, but mostly because a full recipe would be too much for us.

The original recipe yielded a panna cotta that was a bit too firm for my husband’s liking, having too much of a “Jello” like texture.  So I made a second batch and upped the liquid in hopes of making a lighter panna cotta that would still unmold and hold its shape.  It was a success, I got two thumbs up.  I do realize that heavy cream can be purchased in a pint (2 cups) with no leftovers, but the extra ½ cup of cream made all the difference.  The end result was one that left an impression that there was much more to this dessert than a 15 minute investment along with a custard dish.

I couldn’t consider this experiment over until I froze one of the panna cotta to see if it would work.  The test proved to be a success!!!  My quality control, taste tester (that would be Kono), reported that the taste was equally delicious and it unmolded beautifully.

To defrost; place in the fridge for at least 2 hours or let the cream come to room temperature then unmold.

PANNA COTTA (makes six ½ cup servings)
Adapted from Judy Witts

2 ½         cups       heavy cream
1/3         cup         sugar
1              tsp.        vanilla extract
3              Tbsp.     cold tap water
1              pk.          gelatin (1/4 oz. or 2 ½ tsp.)

Heat the heavy cream and sugar over med heat in a sauce pan to dissolve sugar.  When the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and stir in vanilla.  Do not boil.

Lightly oil six ½ cup custard cups with a neutral tasting oil.  I used canola.

Place the cold water in a med size bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the water as evenly as possible.  Set aside for about 5 – 10 minutes.

Pour very warm cream over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

Divide into the prepared custard cups and chill until set.  It will take at least 2 hours to set, but 4 hours would be optimum.  This dessert can be made up to 2 days ahead of time and kept well covered and chilled.

To unmold, run a sharp knife around the edge of each panna cotta and unmold each onto a serving plate and garnish as desired.  If it sticks and doesn't slide out easily, set the dish in a bowl of hot tap water for about 10 seconds to loosen.

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