At the tender age of 18, my baking obsession began with the arrival of a cookbook called The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle. The recipes come from Kate Zuckerman, who was the head pastry chef at the much beloved and now defunct restaurant, Chanterelle in New York City. My mother found the book and bought it for herself. She eventually had to buy a second copy. I had taken and devoured the first.
Zuckerman taught me about chocolate, butter, eggs, vanilla beans, cardamom and pears. She has shaped the way I approach food. I treat the book like a bible, albeit one that is beat up and filled with notes. But it is my best friend. I bring it with me whenever I travel. I’m petrified of one day losing it and forgetting her recipe for pâte sucrée.
The panna cotta from her cookbook is disturbingly good. When she describes how she decided to create the recipe, she mentions a panna cotta she once had that tasted like the essence of cream and had absolutely no gelatin in it. Zuckerman was unable to lose the gelatin, but she did manage to create one that encapsulates what we must dream fresh cream tastes of.
It tastes light and at the same time full. It has a richness to it from the cardamom, but it is not overpowering. What you really taste are the ingredients. Fresh spices, fresh full fat cream, a hint of sweetness. If you have access to high quality, locally sourced cream, this is the place to use it. The recipe is simple and elegant and the dish reflects that beautifully.
Using only a small amount of gelatin in the panna cotta, egg whites must help to stabilize the dessert. Therefore, you must make a stirred custard, but due to a love of making ice cream, this is my favorite thing to do. Besides kneading bread. I find it relaxing to stir continuously for 6-8 minutes while the custard sets.
I topped mine with some chopped pistachios, but you could also make a raspberry sauce to lay it on, and then top it with pistachios or toasted almonds. Or you could drizzle some honey on top. The dish lends itself to many transformations. Zuckerman lists about 15 different spices you could infuse in the dish. The original is vanilla, but I’m obsessed with cardamom.
This is one of those dishes that I would show to someone who says baking is boring because it is all about precise measurements and you can’t change things up, unlike with cooking. I agree, baking involves precision, but its also important to be able to be creative within baking, and for even a young baker, this dish allows a sense of entitlement to what one has made. By choosing what spice and how much of it to incorporate, you have produced something that belongs only to you.
At the end of the recipe, I’ll list some of the variations suggested in the book, but remember, this dessert should have various components. Something tangy, like a sauce, or some fruit, something crunchy, like a nut or some crumbled up cookies, and of course, your chosen spice for the panna cotta itself.
People at parties love panna cotta, especially because they each get their own individual dish. Everyone likes to feel special.
Cardamom Panna Cotta with Chopped Pistachios (serves 6)
1 1/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
5 tablespoons water
12 cardamom pods, crushed, or 1/8 of a teaspoon cardamom seeds, lightly chopped
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup + 1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
4 egg whites
Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Set aside for at least ten minutes. It will turn into a paste.
Pour the cream, the whole milk, 1/4 cup of sugar, and the cardamom into a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat, cover, and let steep for at least 15 minutes.
At this point, you can make an ice bath that you will use later to chill the cooked custard. Fill a large bowl with ice and some water, put a bowl that is large enough to hold the custard inside of it, with a mesh strainer on top.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg whites, 1/4 cup sugar, and the salt. Slowly pour about 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture (once it has finished steeping, of course) into the egg mixture, whisking constantly as you do so. Then, slowly pour the warmed egg white mixture unto the hot milk, whisking constantly as you pour.
Stirring constantly, cook the custard over medium heat until it thickens to coat the back of the spoon. You will know that this has happened when you can draw a line with your finger over the back of the spoon and none of the custard on either side of the line moves. Once it has reached this point, remove it from the heat and add about 1/2 cup of the cooked custard to the gelatin whisking until it dissolves. Then pour the gelatin mixture back into the custard, and whisk them together. Strain the custard through a fine mesh strainer and chill over an ice bath.
Once the custard is at room temperature, you can poor it into the molds. This recipe makes six 4-ounce custards, but you can do some math and make different sizes (four 6-ounce custards, three 8-ounce, etc, although if you different sizes will set differently and may be difficult to get out of their molds.) For the original, chill the custards for at least six hours to allow the gelatin to set.
To serve the custards, run a knife around the edge of the mold and then place the bottom of the mold into a bowl filled with hot water. This will help to loosen the panna cotta. Place a plate, or whatever serving dish you are using, on top of the custard mold, and then flip the plate and custard mold so the mold is on top of the plate, bottom up. The custard should slide right out. Top with whatever you’d like! I used pistachios, but toasted almonds, especially marconas, would be just as great, and a raspberry sauce would work wonderfully for some tang here.
Spice variations: 1 vanilla bean, 4 lemon verbena leaves, a stalk of lemon grass, 3 fresh bay leaves, 3 sticks of cinnamon, 4 star anise, and whatever else you can think of. Remember to spice lightly, and really let the cream shine through here, although if you like things spicier, hey who am I to stop you.