Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Panna Cotta with Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar

Wow, it's been a while since I posted a dessert on here! I don't actually make dessert all that often--in the summer it's too hot and we just go out for ice cream, and when I'm in school I don't have a lot of time. However, there are sometimes special occasions that call for homemade dessert--birthdays, holidays, sales on fruit, and most importantly, realizing that something you can get at your local farmstand is about to go out of season and then you'll have to get it at the grocery store and they won't be quite as delicious. I made these when the strawberries were about to go out of season, which means I'm about a month behind in my posting things. (I like to have a buffer of pictures, though, so don't expect this to change!)

I made this panna cotta (my first!) for our belated Father's Day celebration. Generally I'm the pie person in the family, and anytime I'm bringing a dessert pie is requested, but since this was a week after my cousin's graduation (for which I made three pies and a gluten-free crumble), I was all pied out and wanted to make something different. I'd seen panna cotta on a few blogs and was curious--partially because it was Italian, partially because I'd never made it before, and partially because it sounded like a perfect summer dessert: cold, creamy, and refreshing. It was also surprisingly simple to make and required very little heat--the stove for a few minutes, but that's it. Perfect! This particular recipe caught my eye because it seemed different--balsamic vinegar in a dessert? I was intrigued, and I know my dad and knew that even if it came out terribly, he'd appreciate the concept.

RECIPE: Panna Cotta with Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar
Adapted (very slightly) from Epicurious

-2 tbsp water
-1 1/4 tsp unflavored gelatin
-2 cups whipping cream
-1 1/4 cups plain greek yogurt
-1 tsp vanilla extract
-1/2 cup sugar
-1 quart strawberries, hulled and sliced
-3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
-1/4 cup sugar
-freshly ground pepper, to taste

1. Put the water into a small cup and sprinkle the gelatin on top of it. Let sit about 15 minutes.
2. Put half the whipping cream, the yogurt, and the vanilla in a bowl. Whisk until smooth.
3. Put the remaining 1 cup whipping cream, along with the 1/2 cup sugar, into a small pan on medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves and cream comes to a simmer.
4. Take the pan off the burner (or if you have a gas stove, simply turn the burner off) and add the gelatin (which will now be a solid squishy disc). Stir until dissolved. Add this mixture to the yogurt mixture in the bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined.
5. Divide between six ramekins or small cups (I used those little plastic chinet cups. I also only divided into 5, because that's how many people there were going to be, and it seemed silly to have one left over.) Refrigerate for a few hours until set, can be refrigerated overnight.
6. Make the strawberry sauce: combine sliced strawberries, sugar, balsamic vinegar, and a few grinds of pepper. Toss. Let sit for a while.
7. If you want to unmold the panna cotta, dip each cup into really hot water and flip it onto a plate, and then wiggle the cup around until it comes unstuck. You don't have to unmold it--in fact, for this recipe, I recommend against it, but if you want to you should definitely read at least through the picture captions, because it's important.

Step 2. This doesn't really require much explanation.

This is also step 2. See how it's nice and creamy and smooth? That's good. You want that.

Steps 3 and 4. When melting the sugar into the cream, it had a distinctly darker color and made the cream look very off-white. I think this is normal and okay, because it definitely didn't smell or taste burnt. Once you put the gelatin in (that round thing there), stir it gently as it dissolves and watch it disappear! It's like you did a magic trick.

I got a little worried when I saw the five individual cups and realized I needed to transport them, but a cupcake pan worked great! The cups were a little bigger than the...uhhh...cupcake-holes, but it held them upright and they survived the (very short) trip.

Uh...plop? I wanted to unmold them, but I expected that they'd hold their shape when I did. I'm not sure if this is my fault or the recipe's. The recipe said to refrigerate overnight, but I read a lot of other panna cotta recipes and they all said to refrigerate for a few hours. I went with a few hours. That might be the reason it plopped. However, I think it's much more likely that this is a recipe that is not meant to be unmolded--the ever-helpful Technicolor Kitchen posted a similar-looking panna cotta recently which called for 2 teaspoons of gelatin and said to use less if you don't plan to unmold it. (She also said that less gelatin tastes better, so maybe leaving it in the cup is the best option.) I want to try making this again and using the two teaspoons and see how it comes out. So: if you plan to unmold your panna cotta, you either need to refrigerate overnight or use more gelatin and I'm not quite sure which it is but I think it's the gelatin.

You may remember in my asparagus risotto post that I said I had two recipes from Epicurious that I wasn't satisfied with--granted, neither of the dissatisfactions had to do with taste, simply with their instructions. Assuming that the gelatin is the problem, I would have liked to see something saying to use a different amount to unmold it, especially considering that panna cottas are frequently served this way. Really, though? It tasted so good that I almost don't care. I'm going to try more gelatin just to see if my theory is correct, but if it's true that it doesn't taste as good, I'll eat my panna cotta in the cup from now on.

If you're serving this to kids or people with kid-like palates, you can separate out some of the strawberries after you add the sugar and before you add the balsamic vinegar and pepper. Mike and Mia both ate theirs with just cinnamon and sugar on their strawberries. It's super easy. It also probably doesn't need the amount of sugar I put in--the original recipe said to use one tablespoon, but I was worried that the balsamic would be overpowering and there wouldn't be much sweet. I loved it how it came out and though I would probably use a little less next time, I'd stay closer to my amount than theirs. I'm also not sure if the additional sugar is responsible for how soupy the strawberries got--does more sugar make strawberries bleed more? And is there a better word for this than "bleed"?

So, making this, I discovered two things: first, panna cotta is simple and delicious, and second, the strawberry and balsamic combination is really really good. I've only heard of it in terms of balsamic vinegarettes on salads with strawberries before, and it never occurred to me that the two would be so good on their own (well, with a lot of sugar).

Do you guys have any unexpectedly delicious combinations of flavors that you love? What are they?