Saturday, March 1, 2014

Panna Cotta, an Easy, Elegant Dessert

For any who don't know, Panna Cotta is Italian for "cooked cream."  It is an Italian dessert using milk, cream, sugar and gelatin as its basic ingredients. Other flavors can be added, though the basic ingredients are more than enough to make a lovely presentation with some fresh fruit alongside. The dessert can be poured in ramekins to unmold and serve, or poured into bowls to set and serve, or into pretty stemmed glasses to serve. It is most striking and delicious served with berries, though the options certainly do not stop there.

Strawberry Lavender Panna Cotta
Of course, being me, I had to try something out of the ordinary. Meaning, I have yet to make this dessert in its simplest form. Yet. I intend to remedy that very soon. Meanwhile, I did try an experiment that was quite delicious. I made Strawberry Lavender Panna Cotta, using crushed freeze-dried strawberries, dried lavender flowers and honey. I also decided to use coconut milk instead of regular milk or cream, always with an eye to how to help if someone has allergies or aversions to dairy. This dessert has no eggs for thickening, so if truly necessary this dessert can be completely vegan. It is naturally gluten free in its basic form. I did use honey as the sweetener, and of course another sweetener, or regular sugar can be used. 

When I decided to use coconut milk, I had a can in my pantry that was larger than usual, and used that can. I had never used that brand before, but have never had any problems with coconut milk. This one, and I did not find out until I actually tried the finished dessert, had a very strange texture. It was not smooth, like most any coconut milk brand. Hence, my panna cotta had a strange texture. There was nothing at all wrong with the flavors, however. I would most certainly make it again. With a different coconut milk.

Dried Lavender Flowers
Also, a basic panna cotta is really, truly just those 4 ingredients; milk, cream, sugar and gelatin. I decided to add in some whipped cream at the end. If making this vegan and want to add the whipped cream at the end, you may want to try whipping chilled coconut cream - the part that solidifies and floats in the can. I have not actually done this myself, but have read about it being done with great success.

If you have never used lavender in cooking applications, it is unusual. The first time I made cookies with lavender flowers, I felt it was just too much. I have been more circumspect in the amounts used now, though I have found that if the flowers are steeped in milk first, it seems to mellow the flavor. In my recipe, I steeped the lavender flowers and the freeze-dried strawberries in the heated coconut milk and honey.

Strawberry Lavender Panna Cotta

Serves 4

1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (about 1/2 packet)
2 tablespoons cold water
1 cup coconut milk (or regular milk)
1/4 cup honey
2 teaspoons dried lavender flowers
1 tablespoon finely crushed freeze-dried strawberries
3/4 cup additional coconut milk (or regular milk)
1/2 cup whipping cream

In a small cup or bowl, combine the gelatin with the 2 tablespoons water. Allow to set for at least 5 minutes.

In a small saucepan, combine the 1 cup coconut milk, honey, lavender flowers and crushed dry strawberries. Bring the mixture just to a simmer, remove from heat and allow the mixture to steep for 10 minutes. Add in the soaked gelatin and stir to completely dissolve the gelatin into the warm mixture. Strain out the lavender and larger strawberry bits and discard. To the liquid add the remaining 3/4 cup of coconut milk. Allow the mixture to cool on the counter until room temperature. Whip the cream and fold gently into the panna cotta.  Have ready 4 pretty glasses, bowls or 4 - 5-ounce ramekins. If using ramekins, grease them for easier unmolding later. Pour the panna cotta evenly into the 4 containers. Set these into the refrigerator  for at least 5 to 6 hours, until completely set.

To unmold, dip the bottom half of the ramekins into hot water for a minute, to soften. If necessary, run a knife around the edge to loosen. Turn over onto a plate and unmold gently. Serve alone or with fresh fruits.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.