You know the feeling when you’re served something nostalgic or something from your younger years and it gives you a sense of levity, or whimsy, almost as if it’s fun to eat? Or how eating something very ‘grown up’ like caviar on tiny blinis with champagne can make you feel like the ultimate in sophistication? Well, for me, panna cotta feels virtuous. You’d think that something more responsible, like bran, would be a ‘virtuous’ food, but no. For me it’s panna cotta. Perhaps it’s the pure paleness of it, or the delicate texture, the pleasingly (almost) bland almond perfume of it. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure that panna cotta is what angels eat. And who doesn’t want to feel a bit angelic once in a while?
As I’m sure you’re well aware, food, much like fashion, is cyclical and trends come and go, some lasting longer than others. Lately I feel like the world has gone a bit panna cotta crazy and somehow I’m late to the party. No issue, I’m sure I can make up for lost time. It seems that many blogs and magazines I read are extolling the virtues (see what I did there?) of panna cotta like never before and pairing it with beautiful sauces, marmalades and other sweet or spiced toppings. So what is a girl to do when faced with 2 pounds of deep red strawberries nearly past their prime? Cook them down in a sweet balsamic syrup and pour them over panna cotta. Obviously.
2 envelopes of plain gelatin
3 -¼ C cold milk, divided
¾ C light or ‘half and half’ cream
½ C sugar
1 tsp pure almond extract or vanilla extract
In a medium bowl, add the gelatin powder to ¼ C of cold milk. Stir well and set aside. Pour the remaining 3 cups of milk into a medium saucepan. Add the cream and sugar. Heat over medium heat stirring occasionally until the sugar is fully dissolved and almost boiling. Do not allow the mixture to come to a boil. Once it’s very hot, remove it from the heat and pour it over the milk and gelatin you have already prepared, whisking to combine. Stir in almond/vanilla flavouring. Pour into 4 lightly greased* bowls or ramekins (or 8 smaller ones). Allow to set in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or overnight. You can make these up to 2 days ahead if you keep them covered and chilled.
* Panna cotta is very pretty when it’s turned out of the dish it is made in and unmolded. If you plan to do this, very lightly grease the cups/ramekins with plain vegetable oil. If you are feeling less fussy, skip this step and just eat the panna cotta from the dish it is made in without inverting and releasing it. In the pictures above, I took the rustic approach without greasing the bowls and frothed the hot mixture up with a whisk so it was bubbly on top and the bubbles remained as the dessert set in the fridge giving them a unique look.
2 lb ripe (or very ripe) strawberries
¼ C sugar
¼ C balsamic vinegar*
Trim and halve the berries. Set aside. In a wide, shallow saucepan, mix the sugar into the vinegar. Add the berry halves and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the berries are very soft, but still holding their shape, about 20 minutes. The will become very juicy and the surrounding syrup will become thickened. Serve warm, room temperature or chilled. Keep in a sealed container for up to 3 days.
*Alternatively, if you are not a fan of balsamic vinegar or do not have any on hand, red wine makes a perfect substitution here.