Friday, May 20, 2011

Cloudy Days, Cooking with a Friend, and Panna Cotta

It's been a strange spring this year.  I've felt out of sorts ever since we got back from Virginia on Sunday, and I blame the weather.  Until this afternoon, there has not been any sunshine all week.  We've had thick, dark, gray clouds that make it dark enough to need a reading lamp at noon.  It's also been cold and wet.  With the regularity of a lush at 5 o'clock cocktail hour, the clouds dump their burden of rain drops every afternoon.  Until today.

This week too, I've been caught in ritual.  Every morning, I've spend with a cat on my lap, a good book in hand, and a cup of strong yerba mate tea close by.  Every evening, I've been working on sewing projects.

  The garden has been languishing, under so much rain, under so little sun.  The desire to dig in the dirt, plant and weed, has been choked off by the weather.  I've spent a lot of me week inside, looking out windows, but not venturing out. 

Although, today began like every other day this week with a thick blanket of clouds, it felt different.  My foodie friend Amanda came over in the morning to break me out of my routine and to make rabbit sausage.  It was a wonderful cooking project, and as we have the tendency to do, we talk more than we cook.  We flow effortlessly into each stage of cooking without any sense of urgency.  It is incredibly relaxing cooking with Amanda, yet I love how we still take the food very seriously and the timing always works out, slowly and steadily, like a dance we haven't even learned the steps to.  The sausages were delicious, but I don't want to talk about them.  Instead, I want to talk about panna cotta.

After fiddling with the sausage recipe for awhile, tweaking seasonings, adjusting texture, we realized that we had an abundance of cream leftover from the sausage experiment.  (I will go so far as to say that if you want to make a really decadent rabbit sausage, add some breadcrumbs soaked in heavy cream, a good bit of pancetta, and a drizzle of truffle oil.  Yum.)

I had been telling Amanda about the amazing dinner we had in Pittsburgh last week at The Salt of the Earth, a hip, innovative farm to table restaurant.  They served a white chocolate lavender-scented panna cotta that was so good, after Kent and I ate it, we ordered a second.  We could not get enough.  I was still thinking about it today, and immediately, I knew that I could whip up a panna cotta.  Our afternoons in the kitchen are like this, we can change directions, add ideas, and it's an effortless collaboration.  When we were finished with our cooking, and the last dish was washed, the sun came out.  Finally.  I spent the rest of the afternoon in the garden, where the chives are blossoming and the dandelions are globes of fluff.


Panna cotta is an Italian dessert made of cream, milk, and sugar mixed heated together and then mixed with gelatin and chilled until set.  It's sort of like a cream jello, though I hesitant to call it that because it's so much better than it sounds.  I happened to have unflavored gelatin on hand, leftover from making homemade marshmallows.  I didn't have any milk, so I diluted some of the cream with water.  Resulting a bit heavier, but still delightful dessert.  The panna cotta, though, really is just a vessel for the lavender.

As you may know, I love the flavor of lavender.  When lavender melds with the rich creaminess of the panna cotta, it reminds me of the purple-y color you sometimes see at dusk.  Lavender actually tastes purple to me and like sunshine on wildflowers.  But, you can't have a heavy hand with lavender or it will taste more like you're eating the freshly line-dried laundry.

Lavender-Scented Panna Cotta

Our panna cotta didn't stick around long enough for garnishes.  But this would be excellent served with lemon curd, raspberry coulis, or rhubarb compote.  Or, for an even easier topping, just use fresh berries.  I used a tea ball to infuse the lavender, but there are other options.  You could use a bit of fine cheesecloth instead of a tea ball--or in a pinch--you could add the lavender straight into the cream mixture, but strain it carefully before adding the gelatin.  For serving options, I used wide-mouthed appertif glasses. But, martini glasses would work well, as would simple ramekins.  This should make about 6 portions, but this varies dramatically depending on the size of glass or ramekin you use.

1 envelope unflavored gelatin
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup of milk, half and half, (or like I did, a mixture of cream and water)
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp. dried lavender
2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a small sauce pan, sprinkle the gelatin over the 2 tablespoons of water.  Heat gently, until the gelatin dissolves, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat and set aside.

In a medium sauce pan, combine the cream, milk, sugar.  Add the tea ball filled with lavender and heat over medium heat until it just begins to boil.  Remove from heat.  Taste.  If the lavender flavor is not pronounced enough (and it most likely will not be at this point, so let the lavender steep for 10 minutes.)  Taste.  Once the lavender is the desired potency.  Remove the tea ball of lavender, and bring the mixture back up to boil.  Remove from heat as soon as it boils.  Stir in the gelatin and the vanilla.  Mix well and pour into serving cups.  Let chill for 2 hours or longer or until set.

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