Perfect panna cotta
The luscious and lovely Italian dessert will melt any valentine's heart
I'VE AN Italian dessert in mind for Valentine's Day and it's not tiramisu. It's silkier, smoother and sexier than tiramisu. It's also less known -- but its fame is growing. Lately, I've seen "panna cotta" described as "the new tiramisu" and have found it on several fine restaurants' dessert menus.
I adore panna cotta. Preparing and serving it brings out my romantic side, especially on Valentine's Day when I use a heart-shaped copper gelatin mold that I bought when I was a newlywed. I invert the creamy-white heart onto a red, rose-designed plate and there it is: a perfectly lovely, edible valentine.
Even if you don't have heart-shaped molds, Bundt pans or other gelatin molds (British recipes often call for "jelly moulds") do nicely. Or you can skip molds altogether and use mismatched teacups or demitasse cups, ramekins or pretty bowls, and serve the dessert without unmolding.
When a fresh strawberry sauce floats atop the layer of white in a clear martini, parfait or wine glass, you need only add candlelight to create romance. Well, maybe a lace doily on a saucer, with a simple heart-shaped cookie by the stem of the glass, but that's optional. Look about and you're sure to find pretty containers for a dessert that's worthy of them.
Panna cotta (PAH-nah KOH-tah) is Italian for "cooked cream," but few recipes bring the cream to more than a simmer, so "molded cream" might better define it. It's also described as an "eggless custard," though it's simpler to make than custards, creme brulées or flans.
The northern, Piedmontese area of Italy, where the dish originates, has always had access to first-class dairy products, and panna cotta is little more than that -- excellent cream sweetened, lightly flavored, thickened with gelatin and chilled.
The French have a similar dessert that you might try next Valentine's Day, "blancmange," which usually features almonds and is cooked and thickened with cornstarch before it's poured into molds and chilled. This year, however, let's do panna cotta.
There's no dearth of panna cotta recipes to choose from, especially online. A Google search can bring up "about 166,000" entries, which is somewhat daunting. I narrowed the recipes down to three, including my all-time favorite, a mascarpone (mahs-khar-POH-nay) panna cotta that is dead simple to make, but looks and tastes amazing.
FIRST, so you can see the panna cotta in its most elementary form and learn the standard procedure for preparing it, I've developed this recipe to which I have given the imaginative title of:
Basic Panna Cotta
1 envelope unflavored gelatin (about a tablespoon)
2 tablespoons cold water
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup half-and-half
1/3 cup sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Sprinkle gelatin over water in a very small saucepan and let stand, without stirring, two or three minutes to soften.
Heat over low heat, stirring until gelatin is dissolved. Remove pan from heat.
In a large saucepan, stir cream, half-in-half and sugar together and bring just to boiling point over moderately high heat. Remove pan from heat and stir in gelatin mixture and vanilla.
Pour into 8 1/2-cup ramekins or a 4-cup mold and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. Cover with foil or plastic wrap and chill at least 4 hours, or overnight. May be made up to two days ahead.
Serve in your containers or unmold onto cold serving plates.
While I'm a panna cotta purist, preferring my dessert in its immaculate, Zen-like state, many recipes include sauces to serve over, under or around them. These are usually fresh berry or fruit coulis or reductions, or caramel, chocolate or coffee sauces which complement the panna cotta's creaminess.
Sometimes I fancy it up with a frill of whipped cream around the edge, and heart-shaped slices of strawberries and kiwi fruit alternating above that. That's the recipe I told you about, Mascarpone Panna Cotta.
If you're a panna cotta novice, a few notes about ingredients.
First -- the gelatin. Look for the small orange box of Knox's unflavored gelatin. It will contain three packets of dried powder which you'll "bloom," or soften in a small amount of cool liquid, before heating, so it will dissolve completely and do its job properly.
The orange liqueur I use is Curacao, but if you prefer a nonalcoholic dessert, just use all water with a little almond, orange or lemon extract for flavor.
Mascarpone is a light Italian cream cheese found in small tubs among the deli cheeses. Because it's used in tiramisu, it's generally available. Safeway seems to have a steady supply, but I've found only coffee-flavored mascarpone at my nearest Foodland, and that would make a muddy-looking dessert. Although mascarpone is the gold standard for this dessert, I've substituted Philadelphia cream cheese (even the reduced-fat type), and it's almost as good, and less expensive. Let the cheese warm up slightly and beat it a little longer so that it blends in smoothly.
Mascarpone Panna Cotta
1 tablespoon cold water
3 tablespoons orange liqueur
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 8-ounce carton dairy sour cream
2/3 cup sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup whipping cream
In a microwave-safe measuring cup, combine water and liqueur. Sprinkle gelatin over the top and let sit 2 to 3 minutes.
Cook on high in microwave until gelatin begins to boil (20-30 seconds).
In a medium bowl, beat mascarpone with an electric mixer (medium speed) until fluffy. Lower speed and beat in sour cream, sugar, gelatin mixture and vanilla just until smooth. Whisk in whipping cream.
Pour mixture into molds, cover and chill at least 4 hours, or up to two days. Unmold and garnish, if desired, before serving. Serves 8.
THE NATIONAL Mango Board provided this third panna cotta, also suited to Valentine's Day. The mango and buttermilk flavors blend nicely, lending a tropical touch that's perfect for Hawaii. The Board's home economist, Patty Mastracco, said she'd made it without "blooming" the gelatin and that it came out fine, but after I inquired, she added that extra step, just in case. This recipe serves only two -- you and your honey!
COURTESY NATIONAL MANGO BOARD
Mango Sauce serves as a colorful and tasty garnish for Buttermilk Panna Cotta. CLICK FOR LARGE
Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Mango Sauce
1/3 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted and puréed
1/2 cup dessert wine
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cinnamon stick
Stir together cream and sugar in a small pan; simmer, stirring, until sugar has dissolved.
Pour buttermilk into a bowl and sprinkle gelatin over surface; let it stand a few minutes to soften before slowly whisking it into the cream and sugar. Pour into 2, 6- to 8-ounce heart-shaped molds and chill until set.
Meanwhile, simmer mango, wine, sugar and cinnamon over low heat 10 minutes. Let cool and remove cinnamon stick. Unmold each panna cotta onto a dessert plate and top with mango sauce.
Nutritional information unavailable.
BE NOT AFRAID WHEN IT COMES TO UNMOLDING
Don't be put off by instructions to unmold your panna cotta. It's as easy as unmolding aunty's Jell-O-and-Grated-Carrot Delight. Probably easier, as panna cottas are firmer.
» Dip small molds or ramekins briefly in hot water (start with 3 or 4 seconds). Run a thin knife around the edge of each. For larger molds, press a hot, wet towel around the mold before inverting.
» Place a chilled serving plate over the mold, invert both and hope the panna cotta slides out on the first try. If not, repeat the process. Sooner or later, out it will plop. Just don't place your dessert in hot water for a long time or you'll have created a delicious sauce.