Improv

The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies. Panna cotta, which means “cooked cream” in Italian, is a simple dessert, lightly sweetened and thickened with gelatin; it is lightly sweetened and thickened with gelatin, can be made in a wide range of flavors, and is great for layered desserts. I’ve never actually made panna cotta before, so I played with it in two different ways this month. Neither was totally successful, but at least the experimenting was fun!

First up is an apple pie panna cotta. While my son snacked on the apple peels, I made a quick compote with diced Pink Lady apples, butter, cinnamon, and unrefined sugar. I should have cooked it until the apples totally broke down; apparently Pink Ladys have something in common with Fujis and they ended up more al dente than I had realized. While the compote cooled, I made the panna cotta, using a half-recipe and substituting maple syrup for the honey. I did notice that the recipe for “vanilla” panna cotta did not actually have vanilla in the list of ingredients, so I added a splash of my good Mexican vanilla from Rancho Gordo and called it a maple-vanilla panna cotta. I admit to being a little nervous about the liquidy consistency of the mixture, but it set up very firmly in less than 6 hours in the refrigerator while I made the oatmeal florentines for garnish.

The cookies took a matter of minutes to put together. I thought briefly about trying to shape them like tuiles, but it became clear very quickly that they weren’t going to cooperate for that, so I just made the second batch into long rectangle shapes that would fit into my serving glasses. I thought the finished desserts were very pretty, but my husband’s face dropped when I told him we had panna cotta for dessert, and I don’t think he had more than a spoonful before resigning himself to the cookie. I thought all the flavors were perfect together but my execution was a little off: as I mentioned before, the apples should have cooked longer, and the panna cotta was a little too firmly set. With tender apples and a more delicate panna cotta, this dessert really would have tasted like apple crisp a la mode, at least to me.

I did try presenting it one other way, no apples and just a little maple-balsamic reduction for garnish along with candied walnuts and a florentine. It really didn’t want to release from the ramekin, but I managed to unmold it without destroying it completely, and the reduction was a really interesting take on a caramel sauce. It would probably work equally well with a little coffee in place of the balsamic, if you like that sort of thing.

For the second take on panna cotta, which I actually made earlier in the month, I decided to go big and do a panna cotta cake. My husband’s birthday was at the beginning of February, and he always likes either German chocolate cake or cheesecake (or both!) to celebrate the event. We didn’t have cream cheese, heavy cream or German’s sweet chocolate on hand, but I started scheming anyway, and ended up making a German chocolate panna cotta cake, with chocolate-yogurt panna cotta and coconut-almond florentines.

The florentines should have been my first clue that this was not a good idea. I went off the reservation for recipes; this one was based on a Caprial and John recipe, and the batter looked and tasted just like German chocolate frosting thickened with a little flour.

The finished cookies, as you can see, did not spread at all. They didn’t even get crunchy; they just sat there all chewy until I cooked them long enough to turn into tooth-shattering rocks. After the first tray I just accepted them for what they were, which at least had a good flavor.

The panna cotta also used a different recipe, since I had no cream, just a freshly cultured and drained batch of whole milk yogurt. I poured it into a glass pie pan and threw it in the freezer to hurry its setting time along; meanwhile I made a half recipe of the moist chocolate genoise from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible and baked it off. When the cake had cooled and the panna cotta seemed mostly set, I upended the cake on top of it and put the dish into the refrigerator to await the evening.

After dinner, I released the panna cotta from the pie dish by giving it a few minutes to soak in a larger pan of warm water, and flipped the entire dessert onto a serving plate. It didn’t want to cooperate, and by the time it released, some of the panna cotta had almost liquefied again from the heat, not to mention the fact that it waited to let go until I was lifting the pie plate, and the panna cotta layer landed crooked on the cake. Not my most elegant presentation! I salvaged the lopsidedness by transferring and smoothing it with a knife, and then covered it willy-nilly with lumpy florentines. This tasted just alright to me. The cake was not especially moist or chocolatey, and I should have sifted the cake flour twice, because a ton of little white lumps magically appeared in the finished cake. I thought the panna cotta tasted good, but then I am a big fan of plain yogurt with chocolate-pear jam swirled in. The florentines tasted fine, but of course the texture was all wrong. Jeremy ate just part of one piece of his birthday cake, and I made him alternative desserts a few days later that went over much better. Ah well, you can’t win them all…

Chocolate Yogurt Panna Cotta

This recipe was my own adaptation from several sources, and in my rush to get the panna cotta made and chilled, I forgot to make notes of which ones I used.

2 tsp gelatin, dissolved in 2 T water
1 C whole milk
1/4 C sugar
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 C drained yogurt
1/3 C sour cream

Combine 2 tablespoons water with gelatin in small bowl; stir to blend and let stand until gelatin softens, about 15 minutes. Place chocolate chips in a large batter bowl. Combine milk and sugar in small saucepan; bring almost to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves and milk is steaming. Add gelatin mixture and whisk until gelatin dissolves. Pour over the chocolate chips, and whisk until the chocolate melts and is thoroughly incorporated. Finally, whisk in yogurt, sour cream and vanilla until thoroughly blended. Pour mixture into desired dishes (this could be a cake pan, pie plate, individual ramekins or glasses). Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated until panna cotta is set, preferably at least 8 hours or overnight.

I am a member of the Theta Class of the Daring Bakers, induced in July of 2007. For more information and a list of my previous challenges, click here.

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