Panna cotta is a traditional Piemontese recipe -- the name means "cooked cream" in Italian. There are many variations of the recipe, but it is generally made by simply simmering together some cream, milk and sugar, mixing this with gelatin, before letting it cool until set. The cream mixture can also be flavored, often with a vanilla pod, sometimes with fruit or fruit juice, but you could also experiment with tea, cocoa powder, and different spices or extracts -- not very traditional but also very good. Some people enjoy the panna cotta on its own, but it is usually served with a sauce (often a berry coulis), which adds some sweetness: the cream itself is supposed to be only subtly sweet.
A couple of months ago, two of my cousins, my sister and I had dinner together with our respective darlings at an Italian restaurant in the 15th called Swann et Vincent (named after the two little boys of the previous owner -- three locations in Paris). For dessert, each couple shared an order of panna cotta (isn't that sweet). Now, panna cotta is not usually my first choice, especially when a large and moist chocolate cake is winking at me from the dessert counter, but we had eaten well -- those people make an astounding herb focaccia -- and panna cotta sounded like a good way to end the meal with something sweet, yet not too heavy.
The panna cotta was very good, and when the chef appeared behind the bar after the meal, my cousin's wife Guénola and I asked him if he could possibly share the recipe. He hesitated for a moment (he is probably not used to customers asking him for a recipe, I think this is pretty rare in France, and may even be considered impolite or undistinguished by some, but hey, we took the risk), then smiled and told us the list of ingredients and their amounts. It turned out to be much simpler than I thought, and I jotted it all down on the restaurant card as we stepped out, promising all the girls in our party that I would tell them if I tried reproducing it (the boys were strangely uninterested, you could tell who insisted on dessert in the first place).
And this is the recipe I used (scaling it down to a quarter, they obviously make bigger batches at the restaurant!) for dessert when Derrick and Melissa came to dinner a week ago. I served it with fresh strawberry coulis (a breeze to make and so much tastier than store-bought), a few fresh strawberries and a Petit Beurre, the classic French butter cookie. Definitely a make-again dessert, so fresh and fruity and pretty!
PS: This came after a cheese course, served with traditional baguette and baguette des prés, the multigrain baguette I love so much, and featuring cheese bought at the market that morning: a semi-dry goat cheese from the Ferme de Bréviande (Loir-et-Cher), a tome de brebis (sheep's milk), a runny and super-flavorful goat cheese with sarriette (summer savory) and a Nivernais, a deliciously creamy cow's milk cheese from the same-name region. I think we got our dose of dairy for at least a week.
Strawberry Panna Cotta
- 1 C (250ml) whipping cream
- 1 C (250ml) milk
- 1/4 C (50g) sugar
- 1 tsp (2g) agar-agar (or 2 1/2 sheets of gelatin, about 5 grams; see instructions)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla paste
- 9oz (250g) fresh strawberries
- 1/4 C (50g) sugar
Optional, for decoration:
- 12 small fresh strawberries
- four butter cookies (Petit Beurre for instance)
Panna cotta. Combine all the pannacotta ingredients (if using gelatin, see instructions below) in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring from time to time (do not let it boil). Let cool for five minutes. Rinse four half-cup ramequins or bowls quickly under cold water, do not dry (this will help unmold them if you choose to), and distribute the panna cotta mixture evenly among them. Keep in the refrigerator until firm, about three hours or overnight.
Important note: if you are using gelatin instead of agar-agar, do not combine the gelatin with the rest of the ingredients. Instead, soak the sheets in a bowl of cold water while you bring the other ingredients to a simmer, then squeeze with your hands to drain (they will be soft), and whisk into the (hot but not boiling) panna cotta mixture to dissolve before pouring into the ramekins.
Strawberry coulis. Rinse the strawberries quickly under cool water and drain. Cut the stems off, and cut strawberries in quarters. Combine in a small saucepan with the sugar and two tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer and remove from heat immediately. Pour into the bowl of a blender or food processor and mix with short pulses. Cover, let cool to room temperature and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serve the panna cotta in their ramequins topped with a layer of coulis, or unmold them carefully onto plates and drizzle with the coulis. In both cases, you can decorate each plate with three whole strawberries and a butter cookie.
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