Exercising Expertise: Green Tea Panna Cotta with Asian Pears

DSCN1384So I’m not trying to sound like a sassy masterchef or anything, but I feel like I can make better panna cotta than they do in Italy…

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 pannaDSCN1364 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.

DSCN1379Asian 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…

Recipe: Green Tea Panna Cotta with Asian PearsDSCN1372

Ingredients

  • 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

Asian Pears:

  • 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

Method:

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.

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Love (3rd edition): Sweet Potato and Chocolate Halwa

imageNormally, I try to make it a point to post some sort of romantic/cute/sexual/whatever you want to call it recipe around Valentine’s Day. Almost always, I’m late, as witnessed with the last two years’ posts, both variations on a baked ziti. This year I shall set an unprecedented delay of posting five days after the big event. Oh well, learn to deal with it because this recipe is equally delicious, and certainly deserves to be made, all winter long.

I have never been in love, don’t know much about it, and I am in no rush to find it either. It will come, if I must be cheesy, “when the time is right”, and that special someone is going to be hella lucky because I’ll be showering them with loads of food, causing them to subsequently gain a couple of pounds. Let’s hope they’re okay with that. Furthermore, my soulmate will know that my biggest infatuation will always remain around food because let’s get real, food will never betray you.

Sweet potatoes are bountiful in the fall and winter months and I do believe that they are very sexy indeed. I mean what DSCN1077food isn’t attractive when cooked down in butter and pureed into a velvety deliciousness? Just don’t do it all the time okay? I turned this lone, but fat sweet potato I had lying around into a halwa or eggless, Indian pudding using mostly ingredients I already had in my pantry, perfect for when an occasion, a sweetheart, or most importantly, yourself demands it.

The idea isn’t all mine, I stole it from Manjula’s Kitchenan online cooking series featuring an adorable Indian grandma cooking up the best of what India’s numerous vegetarian cuisines have to offer. Do watch the video because she provides a good demonstration of the technique involved. It’s mostly a process of constant stirring and DSCN1080mashing, but the good news is that this pudding can go from stove to table in a matter of twenty minutes, and when you bite into the warm and creamy mash, accented with hints of cardamom, cinnamon, and a generous helping of chocolate (that addition made by me because we could all use some its charms during these dreadful months), you’ll be loving yourself endlessly for hours after.

Recipe: Sweet Potato and Chocolate HalwaDSCN1081

Adapted just the very slightest from Manjulas Kitchen

I scaled down the recipe a bit to serve either 3 obnoxious or 4 normal people

Ingredients

  • 1 cup mashed sweet potato (obtained from about 1 large sweet potato)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • a handful of bittersweet chocolate chips

Method

1. Cook the sweet potato by wrapping it in a moist paper towel and microwaving it for about 7-8 minutes, until soft and tender (a knife should be able to go through easily). Peel and mash the sweet potato. You should have about 1 cup of sweet potato puree.

2. Heat the butter in a heavy-bottom saucepan over medium high heat. Add the mashed sweet potato, stirring constantly and pressing down frequently for about 10 minutes, until the sweet potato has darkened slightly in color.

3. Add the milk and sugar and bring the mixture to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the halwa, stirring constantly for another 10 minutes.

DSCN10844. Add the ground cardamom and cinnamon and stir for about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and fold in the chocolate chips. Serve the halwa hot, right out of the pot.

Cooking Notes

  • I could imagine this halwa being just as delicious with butternut squash, yams, or pumpkin in place of the sweet potato.
  • To maintain a desired level of richness, use at least 2% milk
  • For a more traditional Indian flavor, omit the chocolate chips and garnish with lightly chopped cashews instead.
  • For a Southern-Spin, omit the ground cardamom and add slightly more cinnamon and along with a pinch of ground ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Garnish with crushed walnuts, pecans, or graham crackers (or all three). Serve with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, or lightly sweetened marscapone cheese. Now you’ve got a fun twist on a sweet potato pie!
  • You may also serve the halwa with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.

A True Red Gem: Rødgrød med Fløde

DSCN9560After a lot of waiting and crying over blisteringly cold days, springtime has finally come to Denmark. The sun is out almost everyday, the weather is brisk, yet pleasant enough to walk around without a jacket, and Copenhageners have finally stepped out to reclaim their streets. Perhaps the best part of this new season would have to be the large amounts of Danish-grown produce that is slowly arriving in the markets. Just last week, while strolling though the city center, I saw little cartons of ruby-red strawberries, the packaging proudly proclaiming, “dansk jordbær” (Danish strawberries). Excited to say the least, I immediately caved in and shelled out 25 kroner (about 4.50 dollars) for the little half-pound box. Yes, they may have only been like 12 DSCN9563little strawberries in total, but each of them was full of magnificent and richly concentrated strawberry flavor that balanced perfectly between the dimensions of sweet and sour. It got me thinking ahead far into the Danish summertime. Unfortunately I will be gone from Denmark before then (my program ends in 3 weeks, aghhh!!), but I have heard many stories of how beautiful it is supposed to be.

Because the summertime is so short in Scandinavia, people all over the region, including Denmark, savor it to the fullest. Festivals are built around the climate and the sun, particularly in the northernmost reaches of Sweden of Norway, where special parties are thrown to celebrate “midnight sun”, a phenomenon where the sun shines for almost the entire day. Even here in Copenhagen, the sun only sets around 9 pm now, it’s crazy!

DSCN9573It has been built into the mentality of Danish cuisine to only savor certain ingredients when they are at their best, and actually, I think that the same can be said for almost every cuisine. Rødgrød med Fløde is a celebration of the Danish summertime harvest. Translating to “red porridge with cream”, Rødgrød med Fløde traditionally consists of a mixture of red and black currants, strawberries, and raspberries that are simmered down with sugar and water and then thickened with a couple of spoons of potato flour. The resulting “pudding” is then served chilled with a splashing of ice-cold DSCN9617cream on top. That’s right, just pure, unsweetened, unwhipped, and unadulterated cream. The simplicity of everything is   beautiful. The milky cream puts to sleep the tangy chattering of the berries. The contrast is utterly refreshing while still maintaining a measure of substance in your stomach due to the starch in the recipe.

Because currants are not available at all in Denmark until June/July, I used a mixture of strawberries, raspberries, andDSCN9571 rhubarb in this recipe. Even though it it’s not a berry, rhubarb is often a traditional ingredient in many rødgrød med fløde recipes. Furthermore, it kind of also has become one of my favorite fruits at the moment, and the pairing of strawberries and rhubarb is not only symbolic and eternal, it’s a match made in heaven.

So, when summer finally hits your homes, take to the kitchens with some Danish inspiration and try cooking up some Rødgrød med Fløde. Sure, it may be a workout to pronounce, but it certainly isn’t a workout to make.

DSCN9625Recipe: Rødgrød med Fløde

Adapted slightly from this recipe found on the blog,  My Danish Kitchen

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and chopped in half
  • 2 stalks rhubarb, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 1/3 pound raspberries
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons potato flour or cornstarch
  • heavy cream, for serving

Method:

Wash all the fruit and then cut up the rhubarb and strawberries. Place the fruit in a large pot with the sugar and water. DSCN9583Simmer over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, until the fruit has fallen apart and is tender. Pass the fruit through a sieve to separate out the seeds, but keep the pulp! Return the juices and pulp to the pot. Stir the potato flour with some water to dissolve and make a slurry mixture. Bring the fruit juices and pulp back to a simmer and then stir in the dissolved potato flour in increments. Keep letting the mixture simmer until it has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, similar to what would DSCN9590happen if you were to be making a custard or a pudding.

Pour the rødgrød into a bowl and allow it to cool in the fridge until completely chilled, about 4 hours to overnight. Serve in shallow plates or bowls with a splashing of ice cold cream on top.

Cooking Notes:

  • There is not a ton of sugar in this recipe, but the idea is that you will be using ripe fruit, and rødgrød is not supposed to be that sweet anyway.
  • If you are not into cream, you can also serve Rødgrød med Fløde with milk or even a spoon of greek yoghurt or cottage cheese.
  • For people with a massive sweet tooth, rødgrød can also be used as a topping over vanilla ice cream.

Leaving no Leftovers Behind: Baguette Bread Pudding

DSCN6787 Happy New Year everyone! I had the pleasure to greet 2013 all the way from Milan, and now I am lounging around in Nimes, a sleepy little city in the heart of Southern France. Life here is A LOT slower than back home. Can you believe that on Sundays not a soul stirs outside on the streets? This laid back lifestyle has given me plenty of time to sleep and make bread pudding, something that appeared to be highly convenient when my father brought home two SALT-FREE baguettes from the grocery store! Yuck! Who knew that such aDSCN6781
nasty bread could possibly exist? Needless to say, I knew that the bland bread would work well as a backdrop for a tasty bread pudding. Mixed with apples and golden raisins for bursts of tartness, almonds for nuttiness and then soaked in a custard embellished with cardamom and cinnamon to give warmth, this bread pudding hits the spot just about anytime life throws leftovers at you.

DSCN6794Recipe: Baguette Bread Pudding

Ingredients

  • 1 French baguette (preferably a day or two old), cut into cubes
  • 1 Granny Smith Apple, peeled and cubed
  • 1 large handful of golden raisins (sultanas)
  • 1 large handful of silvered almonds
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 200 grams fromage blanc
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • salted butter, for greasing the baking dish

MethodDSCN6785

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Then grease an 8X8 inch baking dish with the melted, salted butter and add the bread cubes, apple, golden raisins, and almonds. Toss to mix. In another bowl, beat together the eggs with the milk, creme fraiche, sugar, ground cinnamon, and ground cardamom. Pour the custard over the bread mixture and allow the bread to soak up some of the custard, about 10 minutes. Then bake the pudding in the oven for about 40-45 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm with whipped creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.

Cooking Notes:

  • Stale bread always works best for bread pudding because the drier the bread gets, the more custard it will absorb and the more deliciously infused the cubes will become.  Please don’t go buying fresh bread for this! The results will not be the same.
  • This pudding would possibly be even more delicious with some sort of egg bread such as brioche, challah, or Hawaiian bread.
  • Make sure you have enough custard to submerge the bread cubes completely. I had a tad less, leading to the tops of my bread pudding ending up a bit crunchy.
  • This isn’t a concise recipe because I made it up on the fly. Perhaps that is the beauty of bread pudding because you can put together any sort of day-old bread with a flavored custard base of your choice! Use this recipe as a template and have fun inventing up your own combinations!

Pillow of Heaven: Dark Chocolate Molten Souffle

I know that it has been a long time. These past two weeks have been absolutely hectic, tiring, and excruciatingly stressful. Who knew college would be crazier the second time around? Haha, perhaps I did last semester, but I conviently chose to forget until 50 plus pages of endless DNA drawings, crooked fairy tales, and technical jargon greeted me every night. Life can be hard at times, and even though this semester is going to be a struggle, I know I can get through it.

Speaking of overcoming challenges has anyone been watching Masterchef lately? I never once thought that I would get so invested in a show midway through its season, but when I watch these home cooks compete each week, they become increasingly relatable to me. I feel connected with their struggles and their dreams. Against all oppositions, both physical and social, these amazing individuals are defeating the odds and are chasing their passions for food. Their triumphs this week almost made me tear up with joy. It’s always beautiful to watch, and I wish the two remaining competitors, Christine and Josh, the best of luck as they head into the season finale next week!

On last weeks episode, the bottom two cooks were asked to make three different souffles in one hour, during one of the most intense pressure tests ever. As much as I was sitting there, nervous on the edge of my seat, watching them battle it out, I couldn’t help thinking about how much I wanted a souffle to eat. Everything looked so light, fluffy, and playfully colored, but best of all, it all reminded of me of the idea that sometimes decadence can appear without the residual guilt. As souffles are mainly egg whites, they are low in the calories and high in the temptation factor. How bad could that be?

I used a Giada de Laurentiis recipe as a template for my creation. Coming from me, that might sound a little weird since I don’t care for her very much, but since this recipe looked traditional while still playing around with a molten chocolate center, I knew I had to give it a try. I switched some things up though. Instead of using primarily milk chocolate as she does, I used a bittersweet chocolate in the souffle base and flavored the molten center with an extra-bittersweet, 70% chocolate blend. Richly dark with mild, savory bitterness, this chocolate allows the flavor of the raspberry liquor in the molten center to shine through, and all together, it provides a palette pleasing contrast to its sweeter souffle surroundings.

Everything’s always better with ice cream, so a scoop of ice-cold vanilla on the top pairs beautifully alongside the piping hot souffle when it emerges from the oven as an airy pillow of magic and pure delight. Enjoy this one folks, cause it’s downright lovely.

Recipe: Dark Chocolate Souffle

Adapted from Giada de Laurentiis

Makes 6-7 souffles

Ingredients

  •  2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1-2 tablespoons berry-flavored liquor, such as Framboise, Chambord, Creme de Cassis
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 ounces extra bittersweet (70%) chocolate
  • 6 ounces bittersweet (60%) chocolate
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • vanilla ice cream, for serving

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and sugar six, 6-ounce ramekins.
  2. Mix together the butter, 1 tablespoon sugar, berry liquor, and vanilla extract in a double boiler over medium heat until the butter melts. Remove the mixture from the heat and add the 3 ounces of extra bittersweet chocolate. Stir around the chocolate and allow it to melt. Then place the mixture in a bowl and let it sit in the freezer to firm up, about 10 minutes. Use a spoon to form 6 walnut-sized balls and let them sit in the fridge.
  3. Now place the flour in the double boiler and whisk in the milk slowly. Add the salt and heat the mixture over medium heat until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the egg yolks and whisk the mixture constantly, till it begins to thicken to the consistency of mayonnaise, about 3-4 minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the 6 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, allowing it to melt.
  4. Place the egg whites and cream of tartar in a stand mixer. Beat the eggs whites on high until they begin to form soft peaks. Then gradually add in the sugar and beat it all together till the mixture begins to form firm peaks. Fold the egg whites into the warm chocolate mixture.
  5. Place a ball of the chilled chocolate mixture into each of the ramekins. Spoon the souffle mixture over the chocolate balls and fill up to rim of the ramekins. Bake the souffles in a water bath until golden on top and risen, about 30-40 minutes. Serve immediately with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

Cooking Notes:

  • If you don’t wish to bake the souffles right away, they can sit uncooked in the fridge for about two days.
  • This could also be made with a blend of white and dark chocolate if you find that to be appealing.

Best at Home: Cookies and Cream Ice Cream

While I outwardly champion strawberry ice cream, my secret favorite ice cream flavor would probably have to be cookies and cream. It’s almost always in our house because my brother can’t live without it, and maybe the same also goes for me. I can’t tell you how many times I have crept over to the freezer, with a spoon in hand, and stolen a little bite. I just love that luscious sweet cream base, redolent with hints of vanilla, but the chunks of Oreo cookies would have to be the best. As they have been set in the ice cream, they are softened to the perfect degree that treads the fine line between crunchy and mushy. This summer, I have rediscovered my love for Oreo cookies, and I really do believe that they carry a more intense flavor, setting them apart from the generic chocolate sandwich cookies used in most commercial ice creams. As I return to college in a couple of days, those Oreo cookies will be missed dearly. Temptation on a late night, combined with a stash of high calorie, sugar laden treats is something I could never allow.

The ice cream base is a breeze to whip together, and it’s perfect for someone who is trying this out for the first time. No eggs, stoves, or tempering is required, and due to the high fat content (relax, it’s okay to treat yourself once in a while), the ice cream will not become rock-hard in the freezer. However, I don’t like to risk anything, so I add a little dabble of coffee-flavored liqueur as an additional safeguard. It doesn’t really add any of its own flavor, but it does bring out the chocolate elements in the Oreo cookies. Use it if you desire, but whatever you choose, I can assure that after you have made cookies and cream ice cream at home for the first time, there’s no turning back.

Recipe: Cookies and Cream Ice Cream

Ice Cream Base Adapted from Cuisinart

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons coffee-flavored liqueur
  • 15 Oreo cookies, roughly crushed

Method

In a large bowl, beat together the whole milk and the sugar until the sugar has dissolved, about 1-2 minutes. Add the heavy cream, vanilla extract, and coffee-flavored liqueur, and mix all the ingredients together until they are combined. Pour the ice cream base into an ice cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer’s directions, about 20-25 minutes. When you have about 5 minutes remaining, add the crushed Oreo cookies to the ice cream base and allow the ice maker to mix them in. After churning, the ice cream will have the consistency of a soft-serve. If a firmer consistency is desired, allow the ice cream to sit in the freezer for about 6 hours or overnight in an airtight container.

Savory Slimdown: Corn Panna Cotta

Not only is this a fat-free desert, but it is also a great way to use all that excess sweet corn flooding the market and the back of your fridge right now. Living in Illinois my entire life, I have learned that during summertime, corn is the king around these parts. Since it has a naturally sweet flavor, why not use it in dessert? You can only have so much grilled corn-on-the-cob before it becomes the last thing you ever want to see.

The corn flavor infuses into the panna cotta in two ways. First the corn kernels are poached in milk, and then corn cobs are thrown in the milk and allowed to steep for 30 minutes. After you have drained out the corn, you are left with a cup of milk full of the intense, fresh-picked corn flavor. Fat-free Greek yogurt allows this dish to be just as creamy without any of the calories, and it adds a tangy note which I really have begun to enjoy in deserts lately. As a lot of the sweetness comes from the corn, you don’t need to put a lot of sugar into this one, and therefore this desert is great for any night in the week! It’s refreshing and works wonderfully in these blisteringly hot days.

Recipe: Corn Panna Cotta

Adapted from Food and Wine

Ingredients

  • 2 ears fresh corn, kernels removed and cobs cut into four pieces each
  • 1 cup fat-free milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons plain powdered gelatin
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 1/3 cup fat-free sour cream
  • 1 1/2 cups plain fat-free Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method

In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water. In a small saucepan, bring the milk and the sugar to a simmer over medium heat. Add the corn kernels and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove the kernels and set aside. Add the corn cobs to the milk. Bring to a simmer. Then remove the pot from the heat and allow the milk and cob mixture to steep covered for 30 minutes. Remove the cobs from the milk. Bring the milk to a simmer again and add the gelatin. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

In a large bowl, whisk the sour cream with the yogurt, lime juice, and vanilla. Whisk in the milk and then pour the panna cotta into 6 ramekins or glasses. Refrigerate until set, at least 3-6 hours. Serve cold with the reserved cob kernels sprinkled on top, along with some fruit or caramel sauce if you desire.