The scene: you’re invited to a friend’s house for dinner, and your assignment is to bring dessert. You want to bring something nice, maybe even “fancy” or “elegant”-ish, love to cook, are up for the challenge but have been baking because of the holidays and so, are over cookies and cakes and pies, etc. What’s a girl to make?
Panna cotta just may be the answer for which you seek.
An eggless custard made from milk, cream and unflavored gelatin, panna cotta is beautiful and delicate and creamy, almost like a not-fully-set ice cream that never melts. It is traditionally flavored with sugar and vanilla but is, basically, wide open to reinterpretation. I have seen coffee-flavored panna cotta, or white chocolate, or mint. I’ve seen it finished with strawberry syrup, peanut brittle, salted caramel. Unmolded from a ramekin and plated, or set into a decorative glass like it’s a parfait. I went for the classic honey-and-vanilla flavor (click here for the recipe), and finished it with a warm fruit compote. I don’t have any pictures except for the final product (it was late when I started making it, my camera was in the other room, the lighting was sub-par and I was tired and didn’t feel like launching a photo shoot), but it’s OK. It’s easy. I promise.
First, let your gelatin hydrate in the milk for five minutes, and then pour that in a pan and let the gelatin fully dissolve, which should take about five minutes. Mix all the other ingredients in (yes, all of them–cream, sugar or honey, vanilla, salt) and let the sugar dissolve, which should take another five minutes or so. Keep stirring, don’t let the milk boil. Once that’s all mixed and dissolved and unified into one great creamy mass, pour it into prepared cups. If you plan on serving the panna cotta directly from the cup it’s set in, you don’t have to grease it. If you’re planning on unmolding it, you should grease your molds or ramekins with some sort of neutral oil; I spritzed mine with a canola cooking spray. Let the poured custard cool a bit, then cover the cups and put them in the fridge overnight. Done.
I made up the compote recipe. What’s fun about compote is, it’s fruity, but you can make it as sweet or savory or tart as you’d like. I knew the panna cotta would be creamy and sweet so I wanted something tart to provide balance. It’s also traditionally served warm, so that’s another fun contrast. As I love love love fruit compote and will put it on anything, practically, I made a ton of it. Feel free to amend at will. All measurements (tablespoons of this, teaspoons of that) relative, and subject to debate.
- One Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped into a fairly small dice
- One bag of frozen mixed fruit (large pieces of fruit chopped to single-bite size, please)
- One cup (ish) of frozen cranberries (or less, or none, if you don’t like them or have them hanging around your freezer, like I do)
- One inch of fresh ginger, grated fine
- One lemon, zested and then juiced
- One teaspoon cinnamon
- Two tablespoons sugar
- Two tablespoons raspberry vinegar
- 1/2 cup cranberry juice
- 1/4 tsp salt, and pepper (yes, pepper) to taste
Put everything in a pot. Boil it until it’s reduced and thick and the fruit has broken down into a fully incorporated mass, which will be about fifteen minutes or so. Keep an eye on it because once it’s ready it will turn pretty quickly from soupy pot of fruit to thick stewed fruit that would burn easily. Stir it every so often, and you’ll see when it becomes too thick to want to leave on any longer. And this is the flavor profile I wanted for this specific dessert, but seriously, put in whatever you’d like. If a tart compote isn’t your style, feel free to not use vinegar, or not use Granny Smith apples, or cranberries, or whatever. That’s the fun of getting to know this dish; you can absolutely tailor it to your likes and needs. Once it’s cooked, let it cool slightly, then store in the fridge until you need it. Done.
When serving the panna cotta, first warm up the compote. I put mine in the microwave just until it was warm. Not hot. Warm. I wanted it to contrast with the custard, not melt it and/or burn my dining companions, so don’t nuke it into oblivion. My panna cotta needed to be unmolded from the ramekins it was set in and then plated, which probably sounds more difficult than it is. Run a knife around the edges of the custard to loosen it from the sides of the mold, and then? Put a plate on top of the ramekin, flip so the plate is sitting properly on the table, and pull the mold up. You’ll find yourself staring at a perfectly-shaped custard, waiting to be finished. Add a healthy large spoonful of the compote (put the remainder on the table for those who want extra) and a sprinkle of crushed pistachios and molto bene! Dessert.