(part of From Provence to the Catskills, our celebration held as part of of the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 blog event)
For dessert, we turned for inspiration to Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand. This is a wonderfully personal and entertaining book, its recipes interspersed with interesting concepts and stories, such as the letter to Bertolli’s newborn son about aging aceto balsamico, or the concluding Conversation with a Glass of Wine, in which Bertolli creates an imaginary opera of the interactions of the various courses of his meal with a bottle of Barolo.
The dessert section (which is organized into full menus to highlight the place of dessert in a meal), contained a recipe for rose-scented panna cotta with a compote of white nectarines. We just missed the Catskills nectarine season, but the peaches are still magnificent. Instead of roses, we used French lavender from the garden to continue the Provencal theme. We were not disappointed – the panna cotta was delicate and refreshing, the peaches sweet and cool, a perfect end to a rich meal.
I’ve always loved panna cotta as a dessert in restaurants, and was surprised by how easy this was. There is very little “cooking” involved, and the dessert can be made well in advance and kept refrigerated until serving. The only tough part was getting the panni cotti (is that the plural?) out of the ramekins at the end – Bertolli doesn’t give any suggestions for preparing the ramekins to help them slip out; I suppose any kind of lubricant might interfere with the delicate flavors. The Epicurious recipes I looked at suggested warming the molds first by sitting them in some hot water prior to inverting them, which worked after a while, but warmed the puddings up a little. Maybe I was just too impatient to get them served!
Lavender panna cotta with peaches (fills about 10 small ramekins)
6 cups of heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
10 heads of lavender flowers, coarsely chopped
6 tbs cold water
2 tbs gelatin (usually 2 small packets, if using packaged gelatin)
For the sauce:
6-8 ripe peaches
3 tbs sugar
1 cup of cold water
Warm the cream with the sugar and salt over a low flame until hot, but well below a simmer. Turn off heat. Add lavender flowers and steep for about 15 minutes. The lavender flavor should become quite pronounced – if not, leave it for longer, as it will become less strong when cooled.
Strain the flowers out of the warm cream.
Place 6 tbs cold water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the water. Leave for 5 minutes to soften. Whisk in some of the warm cream to dissolve the gelatin, then whisk the gelatin/cream mixture back into the rest of the cream. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a medium size mixing bowl.
Set out ramekins on a baking sheet that will fit in the refrigerator.
Set the bowl of cream into a larger bowl half-filled with ice. Stir the cream with a rubber spatula, scraping the inside of the bowl constantly so that the panna cotta doesn’t set. When the mixture is very cold and starting to thicken, remove the bowl from the ice and pour the mixture into the ramekins. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
For the sauce, peel and chop half of the peaches into small chunks (about 1/4 inch pieces – should yield about 2 cups), put in saucepan with water and sugar. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer with lid on for 45 minutes. Strain the mixture. Bertolli says to discard the cooked fruit, but I kept it for my 3-year-old – it was great over vanilla ice cream. Chill the syrup.
Peel, pit and dice the remaining peaches into ½ inch pieces (about 2 cups) and add to chilled syrup.
Unmold the panna cotta by running a paring knife around the inside of each ramekin and inverting on a plate. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of peaches and syrup around and over each panna cotta.