Panna what?

Until I happened upon an archived post on Chocolate & Zucchini, I had never heard of Panna Cotta. Panna Cotta, Italian for cooked cream, is a lightly sweetened cream custard thickened with gelatin (or something of the sort) and frequently served unmoulded and topped with a fruit coulis. I’m not certain if what happened next is the product of an overactive imagination or heightened awareness, but – suddenly – Panna Cotta was everywhere: peeking out from the covers of magazines at the grocery store checkout, splashed across the pages of all the dessert cookbooks, and even creeping onto the menus of several restaurants I encountered.

As someone who always aims/desires to be ahead of the curve on food-related trends, I found this whole Panna Cotta business to be a bit demoralizing. But, bearing in mind the old adage better late than never (and tempering it with the better safe than sorry maxim), I set to work taking all possible precautions to make my first foray into the world of Panna Cotta a success or, at worst, a private failure.

First, I decided on plain vanilla custard. Second, I compared several recipes and chose a version with the fewest and simplest ingredients (the Chocolate & Zucchini version mentioned above). Third, I limited the tasters to two: R. and me. And finally, having only read about Panna Cotta and never actually tasted it, I vowed to preserve my virgin taste buds (an ignorance is bliss approach, if you will). Buoyed by the successful setting of the custard this afternoon, I revised my initial plans for a simple berry coulis and upped the anti by preparing a marginally more adventurous strawberry balsamic sauce instead.

Save for some difficulty with the unmoulding, the results were very satisfying: a nice light custard that held its shape but wasn’t overly gelatinous against the tang of balsamic-infused strawberries.

Bolstered by this first attempt, I am envisioning some interesting possibilities for the future. So, if you’re not enthused about Citrus Panna Cotta drizzled with a light ginger or semi-sweet chocolate sauce, I’d advise you to decline our next dinner invitation.

Vanilla Panna Cotta with Balsamic Strawberries

1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup milk
1/8 cup sugar
1 teaspoon powdered gelatin
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine the whipping cream, milk and sugar in a small saucepan. Heat over low to medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture reaches a simmer, stirring occasionally. Do not boil.

While the cream mixture is heating, sprinkle the powdered gelatin onto 1 1/2 tablespoons of cool water in a small bowl. Let the gelatin activate (about 5 minutes).

Meanwhile, remove the cream mixture from the stove. Add the activated gelatin and blend with a whisk. Let the mixture cool for 5 minutes before pouring into 2 ramequins or small glass containers. Let the custard set in the fridge until firm.

Note: I chilled the ramequins in the fridge before filling them with the custard, which was supposed to help with the unmoulding process later on. I’m not sure how well it worked though, so any tricks or tips would be welcome!

Balsamic Strawberry Sauce:
1/2-2/3 cup fresh strawberries
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white sugar

Wash, de-stem and quarter the strawberries. In a small saucepan, mix the strawberries, balsamic vinegar and brown sugar and let sit for 30 minutes.

Add the white sugar and heat the mixture just until the sugars have dissolved. Remove from heat and cool. (You could also puree the mixture at this point, if desired.)

When ready to serve, unmould (or don’t) the custard onto a plate and drizzle the balsamic strawberry sauce on top.

Serves 2.