Vanilla has a reputation that is woefully undeserved. As an adjective, it connotes anything that's boring or bland, ubiquitous or common. And as an actual flavor, the vanilla naysayers have managed to get it all wrong. While it is true that vanilla has a long history serving as a selfless backdrop to a host of flamboyant and more colorful flavors, it is distinct in its own right, yet it gets little respect. It is much more than the pantry's universal donor. Considering where vanilla derives from and how it's readied for consumption, it is ironic in the extreme that such an exotic item has come to be viewed synonymously with "the everyday," for it is anything but.
I recently had the good fortune to be the recipient of a lovely little package of twelve vanilla beans--six Madagascar and six Tahitian--sent to me gratis (thank you very much) from an intriguing purveyor of imported and specialty products called Marx Foods. Because whole vanilla beans are relatively expensive for a typical home-baker like me, I don't use them as often as I'd like, so you can imagine my delight when I unsealed the manila envelope and discovered within it two narrow, securely sealed plastic packages, each carefully labeled and enclosing half a dozen beans.
Allow me to wax rhapsodic for just a moment, please?
They were beautifully fragrant, ebony hued, slightly moist, and undeniably shriveled. Each one resembled a well-worn, miniature shepherd's hook. I sniffed, then inhaled deeply. I entered a vanilla reverie. It was a lot like love.
But did you know . . . ?
Also in the envelope was a letter signed by one Justin Marx, and in it Mr. Marx noted some interesting facts. Did you know, for example, that,"In order to produce a pod (bean), each vanilla orchid flower must be pollinated within 12 hours of opening. Because only a few, rare species of animals pollinate these orchids naturally, all commercially produced vanilla must be hand pollinated. Once the flower has been successfully pollinated, it takes up to 6 weeks for the pods to grow, and another 9 months for them to mature before being hand picked." (And that's not all. After they're picked, the beans have to be cured for at least a month. I need a nap just thinking about it.)
My advice to you, fellow bakers . . . don't fear vanilla beans. And if you have some in your cupboard, let them out. Use them. They are a beautiful thing.
On to the recipes . . .
This panna cotta comes to us care of The Craft of Baking, by pastry chef Karen DeMasco (with Mindy Fox). Her recipe is called Cream Cheese Panna Cotta. I decided to use vanilla beans instead of vanilla extract, and thus I altered the name, but that's the only change I made. I also used her recipe for blueberry compote, and left that one intact except for halving it.
The only concern I had with this panna cotta was that it could have been just a bit firmer. If I were to use this recipe again, I think I'd increase the amount of powdered gelatin ever so slightly, perhaps from the recommended 3/4 tsp. up to 1 full tsp.
I suggest serving this with two or three, small, crispy, vanilla cookies, no larger than the traditional vanilla wafer you would buy in the grocery store (of course, you wouldn't serve those boxed wafers with this lovely panna cotta; you'd bake your own favorite little vanilla cookies).
Vanilla-Bean Panna Cotta with Blueberry Compote
(For a printable version of these recipes, click here!)
3/4 tsp. powdered gelatin (I'd considered upping this to 1 full tsp., as mentioned above)
3/4 cup whole milk
1/3 cup plus 2 Tbsp. heavy cream
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
Seeds from 1/2 of one vanilla bean (I used a Madagascar bean), and the empty bean
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3 oz. cream cheese, room temperature and cut into small chunks
In a medium bowl, whisk together the gelatin and 2 Tbsp. cold water.
In a saucepan, bring the milk, cream, sugar, vanilla seeds, and empty bean to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, and remove the empty bean. Whisk about one third of the hot milk mixture into the gelatin mixture. Then pour the gelatin mixture back into the remaining milk mixture, and whisk to combine.
One chunk at a time, whisk the cream cheese into the milk mixture, adding a new piece as each one dissolves. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, and then divide it among four ramekins or cups. (Note from Jane: I used six small metal tartlet pans. Each one was filled with 2 oz. of the liquid.)
Refrigerate until set, at least 3 hours. (Me again: Mine was not even close to being fully set at 3 hours. I'd recommend refrigerating it a lot longer than that, especially if you've just used the "3/4 tsp. of powdered gelatin.")
Once set the panna cotta can be kept loosely covered in the fridge for up to 2 days. Serve topped with a fruit compote/sauce, or with fresh fruit. To unmold the panna cotta onto a plate, dip the bottoms of the cups/pans in hot water very briefly.
2 cups fresh blueberries, any stems removed
1/4 cup, and 1 and 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
1 and 1/2 tsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
Put half of the berries in a medium heat-proof bowl and set aside.
Combine the remaining berries, the sugar, and the lemon juice in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the berries release their juice, 5 minutes or so.
Increase the heat to high, bring the mixture to a boil, and cook, whisking frequently, until the compote has thickened a bit, about 2 minutes or more. Pour it over the uncooked berries, and using a rubber spatula, gently fold together. Serve chilled, with the panna cotta.
This compote will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.
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