Thursday, February 26, 2009

Panna Cotta, Take 1

Almond panna cotta with vanilla poached pears

I think I had panna cotta for the first time 2 years ago when Karen made it for the Soul Food volunteers training dinner. She had made an orange version, and I couldn't stop consuming it. It was perfectly creamy, sweet, and tangy, and the texture was similar to tofu pudding--the silkiest, softest phase something could be while still remaining a solid. I've been meaning to make it ever since but never got around to it until this week.

I'd been playing around with the idea of makind an almond-flavored panna cotta, kind of like an upscale version of almond tofu. And instead of fruit cocktail, I'd add poached pears. This was my first time making both, so I did a little research. I did ask Karen for her panna cotta recipe, but it didn't say how many it served (I should have just asked her) so I tried this one instead. Since I wanted to serve 6, I multiplied the ingredients by 1.5, although I did end up adding a full teaspoon of almond extract because when I tasted the mixture with only 3/4 teaspoons it didn't have as much almond flavor as I wanted it to have.

Almond panna cotta with vanilla poached pears

Almond Panna Cotta (based on this recipe)
makes 6 small servings

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon powdered unflavored gelatin bloomed in 3 tablespoons water

In a small saucepan over medium-high, combine milk, cream, and sugar; bring to a boil. Stir in the almond extract. Remove from heat, and let stand for 20 minutes.

Microwave the gelatin and water for 8 seconds and stir it in the cream mixture. Pass the mixture through a sieve and divide evenly among 6 small ramekins or other servings dishes. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.

Even after chilling the it overnight, the panna cotta still looked suspiciously jiggly, and it was definitely softer than I wanted it. I'm not sure if the answer is to add more gelatin because I don't really want the stiffness that's associated with Jell-O Jigglers. I think next time I make this I will try boiling the milk and cream mixture longer to reduce it a bit as instructed in Karen's recipe.

For the pears I found these two recipes for vanilla poached pears which were pretty different from each other, so I decided to try a amalgam of the two. I also wanted to add cherries, but the only ones I could find were dried, tart cherries, so I tried to reconstitute them in the poaching liquid, which didn't work too well.

Vanilla poached pears

Vanilla Poached Pears with Dried Cherries
makes 2 pears

1/2 vanilla bean
2 cups white wine
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 Bosc pears
12 dried tart cherries

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise in half with a knife and scrape out the seeds.

Add the vanilla seeds and pod to the white wine, water, and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Reduce to a simmer.

Peel the pears, leaving the stem intact. Slice off the bottom 1/8" of each pear to create a flat, stable base.

Add the pears to the simmering poaching liquid, laying them on their sides so they are almost completely submerged. Cook, turning pears occasionally so they become saturated on all sides, until they are just tender when pierced with a fork, about 7 minutes.

Allow pears to cool completely in their poaching liquid. Add dried cherries to the poaching liquid.

Once cool, transfer 1 cup of poaching liquid plus cherries to a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook for about 10 minutes to reduce the liquid. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Use an immersion blender to (try to) puree the cherries. Strain and set aside.

Cut each pear into thirds lengthwise, removing the core. Make vertical cuts into each section so you get very thin slices. Fan the slices out and carefully transfer to the top of panna cotta. Drizzle with cherry liquid mixture.

As you can probably tell from the pictures above, my attempts at incorporating the cherries into the poaching liquid did not turn out too well. And because the panna cotta was so soft, the pears kind of sank into it instead of nicely resting on top. But I really liked the taste of the whole dish. The almond was definitely noticeable in the panna cotta, and the texture of the pears was akin to the canned pears in fruit cocktail but the flavor was a whole lot more sophisticated. Definitely a recipe I want to try again and perfect.

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