Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Remembering my friend

Remembering, always, my dear friend Kim, who died a year ago today.

Our family had a lovely few days with her family this past summer. At one point during the visit, D. was looking through one of my favorite collections of poems, and it fell open to this one. We all shared an emotion-laden pause, and then read the poem. Ah Kim, I miss you.


She wore
her coming death
as gracefully
as if it were a coat
she'd learned to sew.
When it grew cold enough,
she'd simply button it
and go.

Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Panna Cotta inspired by Top Chef

For some reason, panna cotta appears to be the next go-to dessert on Bravo's Top Chef lately. A few seasons ago, it was the "scallop," whether actual an mollusk or an imitation made from bananas. But this year, chef after chef seems to be making variations of panna cotta. Or attempting them. They mostly seem to fall drastically short of the mark, garnering criticism along the lines of "tastes like a hockey puck."

Having never eaten a panna cotta, much less cooked one, I was nonetheless inspired to make one last weekend. Maybe it was a craving for dairy, or maybe it was just the appeal of such a short list of ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, gelatin, vanilla. Following on Thanksgiving, making something simple and cool felt like a good idea.

Because I've had no experience with it, my notion of panna cotta comes from what I've heard, and some idea that, when done right, it's nourishing in that primal way milk and honey are when mixed together. As for texture, I had the sense that the end result should be a hybrid of gelatin and pudding, with more subtle flavor.

I'll tell you how I made it, and how it turned out. But the most notable thing about cooking this was the peace I found in doing so.

Such a simple thing, stirring milk and cream together. Everyone else was lost in a mid-afternoon nap, and so it was just me and the soft burr sound of the spoon scraping the pan as I babysat the mixture.

I don't often give myself permission to have nothing to do. It's a self-imposed state of frantic, I know. The upside to that is that I am incapable of being bored. One of the downsides is the frenetic thought pattern I make for myself, even when I am supposedly at rest. Ideas, fears, plans, and obsessions flood my mind constantly, often overwhelming me with insomnia. During the day, I feel as though I am constantly moving from one thing to the next. The end result is not a model of productive energy. It's sort of a muddle somedays. Most projects I start never get finished in one sitting, and some never get finished at all.

So finding myself at the stove with a rare quiet around me was a real treat. Even rarer: that silence spread into me, and my mind stilled. I was there, and there alone, just breathing in the cloud of creamy vanilla that rose up around me. The southern window over the stove was filled with winter sun, angling off the glass in a such a way that it fell on half of the saucepan, and made the whorls of milk seem lit from within.

I hypnotized myself into that little pool for the time it took to watch it come to a boil. The watched pot does indeed boil, I thought to myself as I stirred. Leaning on one elbow, I just let myself just give into the whole bliss of doing one thing at a time.

At some point, the milk boiled, and I went into motion to finish it. A stir of vanilla and orange extracts, a quick pour into ramekins, and it was done.

A few hours after dinner, I unveiled the little pots for my family. Ada loved it, which I took as high praise from someone that regularly proclaims "I hate cow milk." My husband and I also agreed it was worth making many more times again, and vied for Esme's abandoned ramekin. (Esme was not a fan--but I'm discounting that, as she is not a fan of most food besides chocolate.)

Top chef or not, I made this version of panna cotta well enough that it is going on my own go-to recipe list because it hit my imagined ideal balance between gelatin and pudding. The cream was neither tough nor runny, but loosely gathered to consistency slightly thinner than a yogurt. It held its shape if you tipped the cup upside down onto the plate and served it that way, but Ada and I both relished scooping it from the little bowls ourselves.

That fragile texture was even better because of the subtle flavor. The orange had cooked off a lot, and what was left was like a whisper. It was hard to place whether it was orange or vanilla I was tasting, and I loved that.

What I liked most was that the whole dessert seemed like a metaphor for the process of making it. How simple it is to imagine taking a few moments to "just be." And how hard it is to do. There's not much to those moments--some sunlight, some stirring--but the subtle flavor of being concentrated on something is something I savor when I give it a chance. And the big thing: it's fragile, it's delicate--like moments themselves. A little something to remind myself...

Here's the recipe I adapted, using a few slightly lighter substitutions from a traditional version:

1 cup 2% milk
3 cups half and half
2/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (like Knox)
1 teaspoon orange extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch of salt

Butter 6-8 ramekins and set aside on a tray. Set aside 1/4 cup milk in a small bowl, and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Let it sit, with the gelatin floating on top, for 5 minutes.

Mix the rest of the milk and half and half together with the sugar in a large saucepan. Bring it just to a boil, then take 1/2 cup of the hot mixture and add it back into the bowl with the gelatin and milk. Whisk it until it's dissolved, then pour it all back into the saucepan. Stir it all together, add the vanilla, orange and salt.
If you want, you can run the whole mixture through a fine-meshed sieve. I skipped this step, and it turned out fine.
After you strain it, or if you choose not to, divide the mixture evenly among the ramekins. Put them into the fridge for at least 5 hours, or better yet, overnight.
When you're ready to serve them, either leave them in the little bowls or turn them upside down onto little plates. If you do plate them, it sometimes helps to run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen them first. Don't set them into hot water to loosen them--they are too fragile.

That's the basic how-to of it. If you do make it, tell me about how yours turned out. And if you got to sneak a quiet moment for yourself in the process.

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