This dessert is like a dream come true for me. Chocolate pudding? Plus candy? And it goes well with red wine? Wheeeeeee! I love panna cotta (which translates as “cooked cream”, because…well…that’s what it is) in all its incarnations, though the following recipe basically lets you mainline chocolate so it’s got my entirely unrepentant bias. Plus it’s yummy. Here’s the recipe I’ve taken this from, and the ingredient list:
- 2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
- 2 3/4 cups whole milk
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
- Vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup salted roasted pepitas
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
This is one of those dishes that goes best if all of your preparatory side work is done ahead of time. Before you get started, find your strainer, butter your ramekins, set up your parchment or silicone mat for cooling off the brittle, measure your ingredients, bust out the double-boiler to melt the chocolate. If you’re going to use the double-boiler (which I recommend, and more on that in a minute), get the water in the bottom of the pot boiling so you can start working on your chocolate.
The recipe says to melt the chocolate in a microwave, which I think is a terrible idea. I know, I know, the microwave oven was invented when a magnetron melted a candy bar in a man’s pocket from five feet away. It should be a natural choice for melting chocolate, right? But. But there’s a difference between putting an item directly into the path of a microwave’s magnetron and having it succumb to ambient waves. I’ve put chocolate in the microwave just a liiiiittle too long and had it seize up, going from smooth chocolately goodness to weird crumbly nightmare. It was maybe a 10-second mistake, which is so easy to make. And that? Won’t happen when you use a double-boiler. Since melted chocolate is a primary ingredient, and panna cotta is a dish that’s dependent on texture for success, why put the chocolate in the microwave where it can get gnarly? Use a double-boiler. Bonus: once the chocolate is melted it can stay on the boiler over low heat until you need it, and you won’t have to worry about re-heating…and re-heating…and re-heating.
Also, set up a cup to bloom your gelatin right away.
When you bloom gelatin, you rehydrate the gelatin granules and they swell. Use cold liquid to bloom your gelatin; the grains will absorb cold water more evenly and thus will swell more thoroughly. Hot liquids penetrate the outer coating of the gelatin grain quickly and cause it to get waterlogged, so nothing gets through to the middle of the grain. Sprinkle gelatin into the hydrating liquid– don’t dump–so the grains disperse evenly in the liquid and can evenly hydrate. Hot water and one-lump dumping are both shortcuts to getting a grainy dessert, which, you know. Boo. Who wants that? Nobody wants that. You want smooth. So pour off ¼ cup of (cold) milk into a waiting bowl and sprinkle evenly with two teaspoons of gelatin. And then let it sit for at least five minutes.
Heat the remaining 2½ cups of milk with two tablespoons sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt, just to a simmer. If it boils you could scald the milk, which will alter the taste of your panna cotta, which you don’t want. Gently…gently…let the milk simmer. Love your desserts and treat them with tenderness, and they will love you. Once the milk mixture is simmering, add the gelatin and whisk until it’s completely incorporated with the milk. Then spread the love even further and whisk the milk mix into the melted chocolate. This is, of course, conveniently sitting in the mixing bowl you’ve used as the top part of the double-boiler and you are, of course, fusing together all the good feelings in the world into a harmonious blend of thickened hot milk and chocolate.
Once the milk and chocolate are blended, strain the mixture through a sieve into another bowl, preferably one you can tidily pour out of. Yes, straining is necessary. There will in all likelihood be solids, largely from the chocolate. They’re not harmful to eat but they’re total texture killers, and I can’t stress enough that this dessert should be satiny. Pour your future panna cotta into ready, waiting, pre-greased ramekins. The recipe says to use vegetable oil. I used butter. Because butter, that’s why.
Then cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and put them in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight. Until you’re ready to eat.
Next, get started on the pepita brittle. Pepitas. You know…pumpkin seeds. They are one and the same thing. I had roasted, unsalted pepitas, which I prefer because that means I control the salt, and we all know what a control freak I am. Measure out ¾ cup pepitas, then mix with cinnamon and nutmeg. I couldn’t help myself; I added a healthy shot of fresh-ground black pepper as well (no more than ¼ teaspoon) (ehhh…maybe it was ½ teaspoon…). Add salt to taste. I’m sure this would be sublime with a shot of cayenne pepper, but the people I was making this for don’t care for spicy heat so I exercised restraint in front of the fiery spices. For once.
Set this aside and then get ready to pay attention. You’re about to make hard caramel, and you all surely know by now how I feel about working with hot sugar (click here and scroll just a bit and you can even see where I included a short video of boiling sugar, yikes). My attitude is, give hot sugar all the love and attention it needs, and don’t ever touch it with your naked skin.
Great. So. Have your silicone mat ready as a landing pad for your hot brittle?
Yes, ready? OK. Need to take a bathroom break? Let the cat out? Get baby some water? Do it, and get back to me. Go. Sugar doesn’t wait, so once you start cooking it you need to stay there to see it through. It won’t take very long, but it’s awfully needy in that short time.
In a heavy-bottomed stainless steel sauce pan, add ¾ cup sugar and ¼ cup water, and cook it together over medium-high (maybe a touch closer to high) heat, gently swirling the pan to move the mix around. it will start to bubble, and eventually turn a lovely dark brown. Don’t. Leave. The. Room. The sugar cooking thought process will go something like this:
Hmmm. Still kind of white-ish clear. *swirl swirl*
Boy, it’s barely changed any hint of color. *swirl swirl*.
Am I doing this right? *checks recipe* *swirl*
…puts the pan down and scans through the fifteen text messages that rolled in at exactly the wrong moment…
What’s that smell? No, GOD! I only looked away for, like, thirty seconds! *ruined* *starts over* *smell of burnt sugar stays in the house for at least three more days*
So please. Keep an eye on the sugar. And remember, it will continue to cook in your hot pan even off the heat, so add the spiced pepitas when the caramel turns, roughly, this shade of golden brown:
Be forewarned: adding pepitas will make the sugar angry, so to fully incorporate them into the brittle, use a spoon with a nice long handle. Keep stirring. By the time you walk across your modest, by no means large kitchen to pour the brittle mix out onto the waiting mat, it will have turned this rich, dark brown.
Leave it alone for at the very least 20 minutes, and longer if possible. At 20 minutes the brittle will be manageable, but still hot in places. It’s better to let it cool completely (give it 45 minutes) before cracking it into shards.
*Cleanup tip: if you can’t figure out how to get residual sugar off the sides of your saucepan without scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing…relax. Fill the pan with hot water, and let the water dissolve the sugar, like water does. Suddenly, cleanup becomes easier by a factor of a million. Full-on science-ing!
And so. You have nicely chilled ramekins. You have pepita brittle, cooled and broken into shards. Now what?
Take the panna cotta out of the fridge and let it warm up for not very long at all. Two minutes? Three? No more than five; what you’re trying to do is loosen the butter that lines the ramekins, not bring the pudding up to room temperature. Slide a knife around the edge of the panna cotta, then cover the ramekin with the dessert plate you’ll be serving it on. Flip! A beautifully silky chocolate pudding should be on the plate, ready to eat. Garnish it with a dramatic shard of pepita brittle and baby, you’ve got dessert.
Panna cotta isn’t hard, but it is kind of science-y, and you have to be ready for it. The payoff at the end, though, is entirely worth it. Silky, creamy, soft and soothing, with a contrasting bit of candy fun. And pure chocolate! This dessert officially has it all. Enjoy!
And speaking of science…SCIENCE!