Jun 022007
 
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Until I made this dessert at home, I had never had panna cotta in the United States.

I hadn’t even heard of this indulgent dish until a couple of months ago, when I met someone in Korea who had actually taught at the Culinary Institute of America. I haven’t met many people who are bigger foodies than me, but he definitely qualified. A few of us were looking for a restaurant in Seoul for dinner and we decided to pop into an Italian place, and my chef comrade ordered it for dessert, served with a perfect raspberry sauce on top. “Not too shabby,” I thought, but didn’t think too much of it again until Cory’s and my honeymoon.

After our day trip into Siena, we returned to Florence intent on finding a classic Tuscan dinner. We looked through our guidebooks and found a place or two that looked promising on paper but were totally uninspiring when viewed in person. So we started to wander the streets, looking for those wonderful Italian hole-in-the-walls that you hear about from all your friends who were lucky enough to go to Italy when they were still in college.

All of a sudden we passed by a Il Latini, a restaurant that looked very cozy and the menu was actually entirely in Italian, which I took to be a good sign that this place was authentic. It was about 7:05 and the place didn’t open until 7:30, so we decided to wait, queuing up like, well, normal civilized people would. About ten minutes later a man walked up and asked if anyone there spoke English, and almost all of us answered that we did. “This is the third time this week that my wife and I have been here, and trust me, the wait is worth it.” Cory and I grinned at each other at this, and the man continued, “I know you all think that you’re lined up like rational, courteous people, but trust me, when it gets closer to opening all the locals are going to start massing around the door. Lines will mean nothing!”

Well, you know what they say, when in Rome….

So we gaggle up, and before long the man is proven correct when these people start amassing around us, trying to get in ahead of us even though we’ve been waiting twenty-five minutes. ‘Oh hell no!’ I thought to myself. “If anyone tries to get around you, throw ’em an elbow!” was Cory’s husbandly advice. And throw an elbow I did!

We managed to get in at the first seating and were seated at a table with another couple. The huge bottle of house wine was already on the table, and the food starting coming almost immediately. We never saw a menu, but everything they brought was superb: insalata caprese, pate on crostini, and tabbouleh made with barley for antipasti, Tuscan tomato and bread soup for me and gnocchi with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes for Cory for primi, roast beef for me and roasted lamb for him for secondi, and then a delicious dessert wine, biscotti, espresso, (something delicious that I can’t remember), and, of course, panna cotta with a velvety chocolate sauce for dolci. It was an amazing meal (quoth Cory: “my brain pretty much shut down so that the only thing working was the taste buds”) and an unforgettable dining experience in my favorite city.

It was also, of course, a wonderful reminder of a dessert that is fast becoming a favorite.

Vanilla bean panna cotta


Panna cotta with fresh berries
From Cook’s Illustrated
Serves 8

1 cup whole milk
2¾ teaspoons gelatin
3 cups heavy cream
2 inch piece vanilla bean , slit lengthwise with paring knife (or substitute 2 teaspoons extract)
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
Pinch table salt
2 cups assorted fresh berries
Pour milk into medium saucepan; sprinkle surface evenly with gelatin and let stand for 10 minutes to hydrate gelatin. Meanwhile, turn about 32 ice cubes into a large bowl and add 4 cups cold water. Measure cream into large measuring cup or pitcher. With paring knife, scrape vanilla seeds into cream; place pod in cream along with seeds and set mixture aside.
Heat milk and gelatin mixture over high heat, stirring constantly, until gelatin is dissolved and mixture registers 135°F on instant-read thermometer, about 1½ minutes. Remove from the heat, add sugar and salt; stir until dissolved, about 1 minute.
Stirring constantly, slowly pour cream with vanilla into saucepan containing milk, then transfer mixture to medium bowl and set bowl over ice water bath. Stir frequently until thickened to the consistency of eggnog and mixture registers 50°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 10 minutes. Strain mixture into large measuring cup or pitcher, then distribute evenly among wine glasses or 4oz ramekins.
Cover wine glasses or ramekins individually with plastic wrap or place them all on a baking sheet and cover the entire thing, making sure that plastic does not mar surface of cream; refrigerate until just set (mixture should wobble when shaken gently), 4 hours. Top panna cotta with fresh berries in wine glasses or after unmolding from ramekins and serve immediately.

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