I’m sad to see the April Custard Project drawing to a close. I’ve barely tapped the surface of custard; there are so many flavors, recipes, and techniques I have left to try. And after months of eating cookies and cakes, I’m still astonished at how custards are such perfect vehicles for flavors – a vanilla poundcake, for instance, will never match the rich, pure flavor of a vanilla-infused custard. I miss the solid satisfaction that can only come from creaming butter and sugar until light and fluffy, but, right now, I’m sold on the joys of scalding cream, whisking egg yolks, and scraping seeds from vanilla beans.
If I get really ambitious tonight this week may boast a fourth and final entry in the custard project, but I’m not sure as of yet.
Perhaps a final entry would bore you anyway, since it’s most likely going to be a do-over of my latest custard project, vanilla bean panna cotta, which was so close to perfection that it practically screams to be made again.
I’ve had fantasies about making panna cotta ever since Stefan made a mango version during Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars. Wonk and I also had a fabulous panna cotta at 2Amys on Valentine’s day that I still dream about.
I adapted this recipe for my own panna cotta experiments, but made one key substitution: instead of using vanilla extract to flavor the custard, I used a real Tahitian vanilla bean. My mother gave them to me as a Christmas present, but I could never find the right occasion to use them. Now that I’ve tasted the real thing, I don’t think I could go back to vanilla extract.
So why was the custard only “close” to perfect? Well, I had a little “mishap” with the gelatin, which acts as the thickener for this Italian dessert. I misread the recipe, and instead of adding two and a half teaspoons of gelatin to the custard I added two whole packets. Suffice it say, this panna cotta was more “rubbery” than “silky” – kind of like a grown-up version of Jello Jigglers.
Still, it tasted good enough that I want to make it again. I was especially pleased with the fruit topping. I sweetened the strawberries with a couple teaspoons of the orange syrup I had left over from making candied orange peels, and I mixed the berries with orange zest, which was the perfect compliment to the strawberries. This would also be lovely with any kind of fresh fruit – I think blackberries and peaches would be on the top of my list to try next.
Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta With Orange-Infused Strawberries
1/4 cup cold water
2 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin (from 2 packages)
3 cups whipping cream
2/3 cups sugar
1 Tahitian vanilla bean
1 pint strawberries
3 tsp orange syrup (left over from making candied orange peel)
2 tsp orange zest
Candied orange peel (optional – the recipe is here)
Place water in a small custard cup. Sprinkle gelatin over the water and let stand until it softens, about 15 minutes. Bring 1 inch water in a small skillet to boil. Place custard cup in water and stir until gelatin dissolves – approximately 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine cream, sugar, the scraped seeds from the vanilla bean, and the vanilla bean pod. Stir over medium heat, until sugar dissolves, approximately two minutes. Stir in gelatin mixture. Strain into a small bowl and discard the pod (or you can use it to make vanilla sugar). Divide pudding mixture among four martini glasses. Cover and chill, at least six hours and up to one day.
Wash strawberries, remove stems, and cut into slices. Sprinkle with orange syrup, (if you have it – if you don’t replace with one teaspoon sugar) and orange zest and toss to coat. Let stand in the refrigerator for at least an hour, for the flavors to develop.
To serve, uncover panna cotta and top with strawberry mixture. If you like, place a piece of candied orange peel on the top for decorative effect. Enjoy!