Panna Cotta. I love the lyrical quality of this Italian dessert’s name. Even though the name implies cooked cream, the actual dessert is so much more – its delicate quality always bowls me over. It is also a blank canvas, willing to absorb colors and flavors that match your whims and fancies. This time around, my experimentation took me in the direction of basil. I had read about a Basil Custard in Gourmet magazine (RIP) and the idea of using herbs that are traditionally savory in a dessert intrigued me – I decided to use it for my next panna cotta.
Panna cotta is traditionally made with cream but to lighten the texture, I use a mixture of cream, milk and yogurt. I heated this mixture with some lemon zest until it came to a simmer. Off the heat, I added fresh mint and basil leaves and left it to infuse it’s wonderful essence. Straining out the leaves and adding the gelatin was all that was left to be done. (I read somewhere that in a bygone era when gelatin was not available, they used fish bones to set the mixture!)
I poured the mixture into ramekins and into my cute, red measuring cups* and put them in the fridge to set overnight. (*I didn’t have enough ramekins due to a clumsy fall. Note to self: Running to catch a bus while wearing heels and clutching a bag of newly purchased ramekins is not the greatest idea.) I could have used regular bowls but the cups were nearby and the only person I was planning to serve them to was me (panna cotta doesn’t carry well).
The next evening I came back from work excited to have these waiting patiently in the fridge for me. (I swear I day-dreamed about them only once at work. Okay, thrice.) I chopped some fresh strawberries and macerated them with sugar and some more fresh basil and mint. After a hurried dinner (which I can’t even remember), I spooned the berries and the accompanying syrup around the panna cotta. Do any experiments other than cooking have such gratifying results? The panna cotta was light and creamy and the fresh taste of the basil and mint was a pleasant surprise. The ripe, juicy strawberries added a vibrancy to this simple dessert. The fact that I didn’t have to share it with anyone made me enjoy it that much more as I slowly licked each spoonful. Sometimes living on your own can have its advantages.
Lemon Basil Panna Cotta with Strawberries
Note: I like my panna cotta to be extremely jiggly; if you’d like yours set a bit more, add 1 teaspoon more gelatin to the recipe.
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cups whole milk
zest of 1 large lemon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
8-10 fresh mint leaves
4 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
3/4 cups thick yogurt, at room temperature
1 pound strawberries
2 tablespoons sugar
6-8 fresh basil leaves
6-8 fresh mint leaves
1. Heat the cream and milk with the lemon zest and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring regularly until the sugar dissolves and the mixture comes to a simmer.
2. Remove from heat and add the basil and mint leaves. Cover and let infuse for 30-40 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water in a bowl and let stand for 10-15 minutes.
4. Lightly oil 8 ramekins with a neutral tasting oil.
5. Strain the zest and leaves out of the cream and milk mixture and rewarm over gentle heat.
Pour the warm mixture over the gelatin and stir to dissolve.
6. Whisk the yogurt until smooth and mix into the cream and milk.
7. Pour the mixture through a sieve into a jug and then pour into the prepared ramekins. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Once cool, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate to set overnight.
8. An hour before ready to serve, finely chop the basil and mint with a sharp knife or scissors.
Cut the strawberries into quarters or one-eighths depending on their size. Place in a bowl, sprinkle sugar and the basil and mint over the berries, toss gently and let stand for an hour.
9. Unmould the panna cotta onto serving plates. (One trick I use is to dip the bottom half of the ramekin in hot water for 5-8 seconds, place a plate over it and flip. Tap the ramekin gently. It helps to slip the panna cotta right out.)
10. Serve with the berries and accompanying syrup spooned around the panna cotta. (You can also serve this directly in the ramekins topped with the strawberries.)