Thursday, January 14, 2010

Vanilla-Bean Panna Cotta with Blueberry Compote

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.

Blueberry Compote

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.

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, just click the purple COMMENTS below!)


HanaĆ¢ said...

Jane, how did you know Panna Cotta was on my mind? I have one in mind that I came up with in my head (does that happen to you?) and now I need to find a way to implement it. I need to look at a few recipes (yours included) and figure out the ratio of gelatin to amount of liquid. The recipe in my head is called "Caramel Panna Cotta" which comes from a Caramel Whipped Cream that I like to make (caramelize sugar until amber then add whipping cream, cool overnight in fridge, then beat into whipped cream). I could use that caramel/cream mixture to make panna cotta. In addition, I want to put it in little candy molds (those clear/plastic ones) and pop them out later and decorate my husband's birthday cake with it which is going to be a Tres Leches Cake. Can you picture it a little bit?
Let me know if you have any thoughts on my idea. I'd appreciate your input.

Jane said...

Hi Hanaa, Yes--that happens to me constantly! I go to sleep thinking of stuff like that (thank heaven, I'm thinking primarily about making it, vs. just tasting it!). Your idea for your husband's cake sounds fantastic. Sounds like you've got some fun experimenting ahead of you. Have you ever seen the book called A Passion for Desserts by the pastry chef Emily Luchetti? It's got what looks like a good caramel panna cotta that might be right up your alley. You caramelize the sugar before adding it into the cream mixture, and that recipe contains 1 full tablespoon of gelatin, so it's probably nicely firm. If you want, I can send it to you in an email--just let me know!

:) Jane

HanaĆ¢ said...

First, I'm glad you don't think I'm crazy :o) Thanks for that! And yes, please email me the recipe. My email is HanaasKitchen [at] live [dot] com. I've never heard of that book before. Sounds interesting. Thank you, Jane!!!

Marie said...

That looks fabulous Jane. Great pictures. I have that book upstairs. I clearly have to dig it out and have a second look!!!

~~louise~~ said...

Good morning Jane,
I adore vanilla especially in bean form. I always have one or two "steeping" in some sugar, just in case. Your Panna Cotta looks absolutely heavenly. Thanks for your added commentary and for sharing...

Jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane said...

Thanks Marie! Yes, that book has some pretty promising recipes in it. Some cookbooks make me wish I could bake 24 hours a day. (Well, almost . . .)


Hi Louise,
You're ahead of me--I have yet to do the vanilla sugar thing! Since I don't use vanilla beans everyday, when I do I always seem to forget to save the empty bean. :( I need a big sign in my kitchen that says "Save the beans!"

;) Jane

~~louise~~ said...

I'm not so sure you need a "Save the Beans" sign Jane. With recipes like this one of yours, who wants to save them anyway. I need to save them in sugar because I am so baking challenged!!!

Kate at Serendipity said...

Jane, I LOVELOVELOVE panna cotta. This recipe, with cream cheese in it is interesting. I never thought of adding cream cheese to it! Why not? What a GOOD idea.

I like my panna cotta softer rather than hard, so I make it in verrines. That way I don't have to unmold it, and there's room to put the fruit on top. When you eat it, the spoon makes little tunnels down into the panna cotta and it's really pretty from the outside of the glass...(I like to play with my food)

I"m glad to see this recipe using beans instead of extract. I always use vanilla beans. I love seeing the tiny black seeds in something. I don't have extract, in fact! When the bean is scraped and steeped, I rinse it in cool water and let it dry then put it into sugar. I use this sugar whenever I want a vanilla flavor.

Sometimes, though, I have enough vanilla sugar (hard to believe), and I put the dried bean in a little dish in my kitchen. The whole house has a delicate sweet smell for a few days.

I also love the way my fingers smell after I've been cooking with vanilla.

Thanks for this post.

Allison said...

Jane, thanks for sharing your experience making this panna cotta. It is on my list of things to try making this year. I love the simplicity of this recipe and how well the vanilla is highlighted. And what a lucky package to receive in the mail! I bet that was an exciting discovery :)

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Anonymous said...

What do u do with kosher sat? I read back and forth and can't see what u do with the kosher salt?