I first made panna cotta two years ago, for a Valentine’s Day dinner, and it quickly became one of my favorite desserts. (It’s basically milk, cream and sugar, so what’s not to love?) My inspiration was the recipe in the Cooks Illustrated book The New Best Recipe — which even inspired me to buy and use real vanilla beans instead of using extract. Splitting the pods (pictured right) is easy, and scraping out the seeds leaves the whole room steeped in warm vanilla fragrance that’s hard to imagine is emanating from such a small object.
Of course I don’t follow the recipe exactly — I muddle and steep basil leaves in the milk, and keep them in the mixture until it’s time to apportion out into the custard cups.
I’m not bothered by the final, chilled texture — creamy-soft, like pudding, yet firm enough to hold its shape, thanks to the activated unflavored gelatin — but a couple of guests at Christmas dinner found it unnerving.
The recipe isn’t difficult, but near the end it requires constant stirring over an ice bath; Cooks Illustrated estimates 10 minutes, but it took between 15 and 20 minutes for mine to reach the desired temperature. After about 12 minutes, eyes on the instant-read thermometer and trying to keep the bowl afloat in ever-melting ice water like a lift raft in icy water, I always end up vowing I’ll never put myself through this again. And to feed 11 people I had to make two batches — that’s more than 45 minutes of nothing but stirring, if you count time in the saucepan, too. But the first spoonful reminds me that it’s worth all the effort.
For the coulis, which berry flavor marries best with basil? I automatically pick blackberry — maybe because I’ve had a blackberry mojito or two at Ticoz. (Plus, I like how the berries’ color brightens to near-magenta as they’re heated.)
Just writing about this got me thinking about the four that were left over and waiting for me in the refrigerator. A quick dip in hot water to unmold, a little leftover coulis and … the late-night snack above. Not as beautifully styled and lit as the photo up above, but still delicious enough to make me want to lick the plate. Not that I would lick the whole plate. (But I would tilt the plate, to pool all the extra coulis, then slurp on that particular spot. All social niceties are off when you’re standing alone in the kitchen at 11:30 p.m.)