I have this entirely unscientific and largely baseless hypothesis that people who make a habit of cooking savory tend to be ill-suited to producing sweets, and conversely. Pressed, I’d argue that my imagined Mason-Dixon line between pastry and the hotline has more to do with temperament than temperature, possibly, even, reducible to one’s relative proclivity or aversion to measuring spoons, candy thermometers, and whether or not one gives a poo about things like ambient humidity. Whatever the reason, in our house at least, we’ve established a clear division of labor: my wife bakes pie, I braise shanks, and more often than not, we eat pretty well.
But sometimes, to my wife’s inevitable annoyance, I get a wild hair up my nose to stage an incursion into her established territory and I try to construct a palatable dessert. More often than not, it’s because said dessert involves something I like that she doesn’t: bacon (she’s a veg), strawberries (she can’t abide them), or – the cornerstone of today’s missive – gelatin (not only is she a veg, but she can’t stand the wiggly, pudding-like texture of gelatin-based anything). And so it was, midway through our most recent jar of Rian’s exceptionally sweet Sonoma County goat’s milk, that I thought of David Lebovitz’s panna cotta recipe, the first line of which summarily describes the only desserts I’m conceivably qualified to attempt:
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.
And while we’ve all read some cookbook or another that claims that all home cooks should be able to accomplish the most technically difficult tasks in their sleep, the truth of the matter – and I say this as one who is unabashedly challenged by all manner of dessert cookery – is that he’s right. If you’ve never made panna cotta before, by all means, please do so, post haste. Particularly with berry season around the corner…
Goat’s Milk Panna Cotta
Adapted from D Lebovits at the link above, who credits Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witts
Note: I tried making this with 100% goat’s milk and it wouldn’t set properly; I believe (but cannot substantiate) that a panna cotta needs a minimum of fat to achieve the proper texture. I made it a few more times, and found that you really need 50% goat’s milk for the taste and color to shine, and that that means you want the other 50% to be heavy cream, like the awesome stuff from Straus Family Creamery right here in the County.
Of the many things to recommend Panna Cotta is its demand to be made ahead of time – ideally, in fact, two days ahead, kept tightly covered and chilled.
For gelatin-related questions, read David’s Tips for Using Gelatin.
2 cups fresh goat’s milk + 2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup white sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or sub 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, but the real thing is worth the extra cost and effort)
2 tablespoons powdered gelatin
6 tablespoons cold water
1. Add the scraped-out seeds from the vanilla bean, the bean’s husk, the sugar, and the cream to a saucepan, cover, and warm over very low heat, at least 30mins, to allow the vanilla to infuse and the sugar to melt.
2. Lightly oil eight custard cups with a neutral-tasting oil. (Alternatively, and what I do as a matter of course, is pour the pudding into wine or martini glasses, and serve it that way, too.)
3. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a medium-sized bowl and let stand 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Pour the very warm Panna Cotta mixture over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.
5. Divide the Panna Cotta mixture into the prepared cups, then chill them until firm, which will take at least two hours but I let them stand at least six hours. (Note: Longer is better. Also, when the liquid is warm and thin, the vanilla seeds will all sink to the bottom. If you want the classic look, and why not, I’ve found you have to first cool the mixture in the fridge until it just begins to set, maybe 1-2 hours, before it really comes together but when it’s thick enough to suspend the seeds, and then stir it well to distribute the seeds, and then finally pour into the glasses or custard cups.)
6. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each Panna Cotta and unmold each onto a serving plate, or serve straight up in glasses.
Panna Cotta is at its best, in my opinion, with garnish of fresh fruit. I used fresh cherries, soaked in a little bourbon and sugar (pit, sprinkle w/ sugar, drizzle w/ bourbon – you’re done!), because they’re in season, and go beautifully with vanilla. But I think the dish will be even better later in the summer, when I can serve the little puddings under a blanket of fresh mixed berries, maybe with a little red wine syrup…