Now before we end up with an onslaught of hate here, I’m not trying to say that panna cottas in Italy are bad. (Dear me, it’s quite the opposite! I once had an exquisite buffalo milk variety in Bologna). They just tend to keep it simple there. The most common flavors are vanilla or caramel, and a popular topping is either chocolate or strawberry sauce. While there is absolutely not wrong with simplicity (heck, that’s probably what has made Italian Cuisine so lip-smacking good in the first place), sometimes a dessert as simple as “cooked cream” requires the need to dial up the flavor antics a bit, especially when you live in a household where panna cotta is a frequent request.
Delivering in the flavor department is something I’ve always excelled at, and I feel that is the true joy of being able to recreate classic desserts at home, giving them your own spin. From mango-passionfruit to spicy chocolate, sweet corn, buttermilk, and my personal favorite, lemon with homemade marmalade, I’ve barely even scratched the tip of possible flavor combinations, and that’s why I’ll be making panna cotta for a lifetime.
With this being my umpteenth time doing a panna cotta in the past five years (sometimes it baffles me to realize that I’ve only been cooking for that long), I decided that I would proceed for the first time without a recipe. What I think I’ve made as a result, is the perfect mix that can serve as a base for a whole realm of flavors. I did a blend of equal parts whole milk and heavy cream, two spoons of powdered gelatin, a spoon of vanilla, and a moderate measure of sugar. It’s a simple, yet foolproof recipe for a plain panna cotta.
The flavor today has hardly anything to do with Italy at all. The inspiration came from a green tea panna cotta I saw on the menu of a Vietnamese restaurant during a recent visit to New York. Due to the fact that I had a plane to catch, I had to leave lunch early and miss the latter dessert festivities. Thankfully, I didn’t really miss out because I just made it for myself a couple of days later. Green tea matcha powder stirred into my base (no infusing or steeping needed) provided the boost of exotic flavor I needed. It’s hard to exactly describe the taste of green tea. A bit grassy and bitter with distant notes of mint, its complexities play well with the sweet creaminess of this treat.
Asian pears, in this instance, do not refer to the varietal of pear I used, but rather the way I prepared them. Wafer-thin slices are stewed with some water, the slightest bit of sugar, and a pod of star anise, a major component of the Chinese five-spice blend. With its licorice and fennel flavor, the notes of star anise intensify with time, so making this component the night before will provide you with the perfect snap of freshness on top of this already refreshing dessert.
Now if they could only make green tea lattes like this…
- 2 teaspoons gelatin powder
- 1 1/2 tablespoons water
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 3 tablespoons matcha powder
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 ripe pears, peeled and thinly sliced (use any variety of your liking)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- a splash of water
- 1 star anise pod, lightly crushed
Dissolve the gelatin in the water and allow it to sit while you prepare the panna cotta.
In a small saucepan, combine the milk, cream, matcha powder, and sugar. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until warm and scalding, about 5-10 minutes. Be careful not to boil or burn the milk. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the gelatin-water mixture and vanilla extract. Portion off the mixture into six, six ounce-sized ramekins. Place the panna cottas in the fridge and allow for them to set, about 6-8 hours or overnight.
For the Asian pears, combine the pears, sugar, water and star anise in a pan and simmer for about 5-10 minutes, until softened and syrupy. Remove the pears and place them in the fridge to cool.
Serve the chilled panna cottas either in their ramekins or inverted on a dish, with a spoon or two of the pears on top.