04 November 2010

It's all about the cream

I recently mentioned the amazing Strawberry Panna Cotta hubby and I enjoyed on a day trip to Sausalito, and the memory seems to be a strong one, 'cause I cannot seem to get it out of my mind.  It was creamy and delicately sweet, surprisingly thick yet not heavy or overly rich.  For a girl who misses UK double cream like I do, it was heaven on a spoon.  So it's no surprise that, upon returning home from our mini vacation I immediately began looking at recipes for this lovely italian custard.

I located a few recipes, but they were all pretty similar, so I decided to try the one in the Larousse Pâtissier app I recently downloaded onto my iPad (if you've ever met me in person, you probably know that I'm a huge Mac lover, and proud of it.  I have never owned a PC and never intend to, a decision that is reinforced every day when I'm forced to use one at work - but I'm getting off topic).  Panna Cotta is one of those great 15-minutes-or-less recipes that you can whip up without breaking a sweat.  That said, you do need to make it well in advance of your serve time, because it needs a few hours of chill and set time in the fridge before you serve it.  Great for those times, say, when you have friends coming for dinner tomorrow night and only a million things to do before then.  It's elegant and indulgent and takes very little effort - and who doesn't love that?  Oh, did I mention that you can make it in just about any flavour you want?

To take advantage of every last bit of summer fruit, I decided to make a flavoured panna cotta with ripe nectarines and a few leaves of fresh basil.  OK, so it's not exactly your most common flavour combination, but the flavour of fresh basil really does pair beautifully with the tart juiciness of nectarines.  Normally, the sugar would be mixed in with the cream and the mixture would be heated before blending in the gelatine and vanilla.  For this version, however, I sprinkled the sugar and a pinch of salt over the sliced fruit and basil, and allowed it to draw out the juices and amp up the flavours while I soaked the gelatine sheets, and warmed the cream.  From there, it's a very simple matter of gently mixing the three components together and pouring the mixture into small molds to chill and set. 

Now, about the gelatine.  Gelatine sheets can be very tricky to find where I live, whereas the envelopes of powdered gelatine is on every grocery store shelf.  You can certainly substitute the powdered kind for the sheets if you need, but then you need to sprinkle it over the cold cream before you heat it, so the gelatine can "bloom".  Personally, now that I've gotten my hands on sheet gelatine, there is no turning back.  Of course I have yet to try using agar-agar, the vegetarian-friendly seaweed based gelatine flakes, which are incredibly hard to find in town, and when I did manage to find some at a specialty store, I nearly fell over from sticker shock (I'll try it next time, though, and let you know the results).

As with most (if not all) desserts, really good quality vanilla and a pinch of salt are a must.  In a case like this where there are only a very few ingredients, you can't cheat on quality.  Fresh, ripe fruit, fresh basil leaves, and buy the very best heavy cream you can find.  Or better yet, make it with crème fraiche - the thick and velvety quality will make this dessert toe-curling-ly divine.  

Nectarine Basil Panna Cotta
serves 4

1-2 tsp neutral-flavoured vegetable oil, such as canola or grapeseed
2 sheets gelatine or 2 pkgs powdered gelatine
1 nectarine, skinned and chopped
5-6 leaves fresh basil, medium sized leaves
250ml (1 Cup) heavy cream or crème fraiche
50g (1/4 Cup) sugar
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 whole vanilla bean or 1 tsp vanilla bean paste

Fill a medium bowl with cold water, and soak the gelatine sheets for about 10 minutes.  Conveniently, this is how much time you will need to prepare the rest of the recipe.
In a medium saucepan, place the chopped nectarine and the fresh basil - be sure to "bruise" or crush the leaves in order to release more of the flavour.  Sprinkle the sugar and salt over the fruit and allow it to sit for a couple of minutes.
Lightly brush a thin coating of oil into 4 small ramekins or cups that you will be using for molds.  Be sure to get into all the nooks and crannies, so that the custards will unmold properly.
Add the vanilla and cream to the saucepan with the fruit mixture, and place over medium low heat until the mixture is hot and steaming, but do not allow it to boil.  Remove the pan from heat and carefully fish out and discard the basil leaves.
Remove the gelatine sheets from the cold water, and gently whisk them into the hot cream mixture.  As soon as the gelatine has fully dissolved, pour the custard into the molds, evenly distributing the fruit amongst the dishes.
Transfer the dishes to the refrigerator for 4-6 hours, or overnight.
When ready to serve, carefully run a very thin-bladed knife around the edge of the ramekin, and turn the custard out onto a small plate.
Serve immediately.


Hazel said...

What an intriguing flavour combination. I have heard of banana and basil before but not nectarine and basil. I have noticed that basil has become increasingly popular in desserts, I must try using it one day!

tiina { sparkling ink } said...

Oh, yum yum yum! I love basil in desserts! Have a great weekend!

tease-spoon of sugar said...

Yum! Panna Cotta is one of my favorite desserts. As always, your pictures are mouth-watering.

Deeba PAB said...

Love the flavour combination. Panna Cotta is one of my all time favorite desserts. So luxurious, so indulgent, and so versatile. Necatarines & basil are calling my name!

Jamie said...

Yeah, baby, Mac Lovers of the World Unite! And we are panna cotta lovers supreme! Adore the stuff (when it is well made) and yours are just gorgeous! Love the flavor, too. Beautiful presentation for an outstanding dessert!