When I was in France for 2 weeks in April of 2013, it seemed that almost every dessert that was served at the formal dinners I attended, were different variations of panna cotta. If you are not familiar with this traditionally Italian, gelatin based dessert, then let me tell you that it is exquisitely delicious if made correctly – the problem is that it usually isn’t.
Panna Cotta is not one of those desserts you will find in any heritage cookbook from the USA, and only came into favor in this country in the 1990’s. This delightfully light, Italian cream however was made famous in the Piedmont region of Italy and listed as a traditional food item of the region. The most traditional flavor profiles you will find there will include a rum or marsala flavored cream that is poured into a mould with caramel or an option made with delicious peaches from the area.
This simple cooked cream is usually made with a combination of milk and cream or cream and water. The term cooked is actually a little deceiving because the combined liquids are not actually cooked. Instead, they are heated just enough to dissolve the gelatin, which is the only thickening agent used.
You might think that without the use of eggs or egg yolks that a dessert like panna cotta could not possibly offer the richness that is otherwise found in egg yolk based custards or mousse – but think again. The rich mouth feel of the dessert comes not only from the added cream, but also the gelatin.
The truth is that panna cotta is similar to a rich Bavarian mousse, and should take on the same light and airy texture if made correctly. To achieve this, the key is to use the right ratio of cream and gelatin. Historically, gelatin was one of those trick ingredients that chefs would use to add an extra silkiness to a dish when other ingredients were unavailable or used sparingly.
The biggest problem with those I’ve tried is that many chefs use too much gelatin. The correct amount of gelatin should allow the dessert to set up yet still offer a gentle wobble, regardless of whether it is served in a ramekin or inverted onto a dish and plated. It should not have the texture of a firm or heavy handed jello.
Panna Cotta is one of those desserts that can be made with just about any flavor, and is often served simply with fresh fruit and accompanied by either a fruit, caramel or chocolate sauce. It’s perfect when you are looking for something light, yet elegant. The milk and cream can be flavored with extracts, natural oils or infused with spices. Once the mixture is heated to dissolve the gelatin the mixture is poured into ramekins or moulds and allowed to set. It’s that simple.
Recently, I picked up one of those personal sized seedless watermelons that were simply too ripe to eat but didn’t want to throw it away. I thought of making ice cream but wanted to try my hand at something different. Depending on the size of your personal watermelon, it will yield approximately 4-6 cups of fruit. I added it to my food processor and then strained out all of the pulp until I only had the liquid. I got about 5 cups of liquid and wanted to reduce it to concentrate the flavor. The problem with watermelon as a flavor is that there really is no flavor. Watermelon is just a sweet, grassy fragrance that is hard to translate into an actual flavor.
So, I had a bit of a dilemma…
How was I going to make this into more of what we would expect, if we were eating a watermelon flavored dessert?
I could use an artificial watermelon flavoring or I could dissolve some crushed watermelon candy into the cream mixture, but I didn’t want to do any of that. I chose to reduce the liquid as much as possible and after starting with about 5 cups of liquid, I ended up with ½ cup of concentrated watermelon juice.
I knew that I wanted to invert the dessert out onto a dish, so I was going to need some kind of glaze, and then I discovered a watermelon jello made by the Jolly Rancher company! I could use the watermelon gelatin as a nappage for the panna cotta, and brush it on just like you would do when glazing fresh fruit on a fruit tart. Brilliant — and it would offer just the right amount of flavor without having to use too many other artificial flavors.
The result was a pleasantly delicious and oh so beautiful little dessert. So, forget the lemons and lemonade scenario — when life gives you a mushy watermelon, make yourself a delicious watermelon panna cotta.
Watermelon Panna Cotta (makes 3 ramekins)
5 cups watermelon juice (without pulp) reduced to 1/2 cup watermelon juice
1/2 cup milk
1 cup cream
3-4 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoon Knox granular gelatin
1-2 tablespoons Jolly Rancher watermelon jello dissolved **see note below
1 cup small diced watermelon for garnish
NOTE: One pack of gelatin has approximately 2-3 tablespoons of gelatin powder. Look at the directions on the back of the box to see how much water is recommended to use with the entire pack of gelatin. We need this to be firm once it sets on the dessert, so divide the quantity of water by the number of tablespoons of gelatin you have in the pack. Decide how many tablespoons you will need based on how many panna cotta you want to make, and since we need this to be firm, use slightly less water than recommended on the box for the jello. For me, 1 tablespoon of gelatin was more than enough to glaze the 3 panna cotta that came out of this recipe. Use hot water to dissolve the gelatin, but the mixture should be cool (and almost setting) before brushing it on. If the surface gets bumpy, don’t worry, gently heat it in the microwave to re-melt the jello glaze and continue brushing it on until you have them evenly coated.
Add your chunks of watermelon to a food processor and puree until it has liquefied. Pass it all through a sieve and remove all of the pulp. Reduce your 4-5 cups of watermelon juice down to ½ cup.
From this amount of watermelon juice…
You will get about half a cup of reduced juice…
Place this in a small pot and add the ½ cup of milk and 1 cup of cream and heat very gently. This should not boil, but you will see some small bubbles forming along the sides once it has warmed up enough. Taste this and decide how much sugar you want to add (anywhere from 3-4 tablespoons). Stir the sugar until it has dissolved then sprinkle on the gelatin a little at a time. Continue stirring until all the gelatin has dissolved. Pour the mixture into your moulds or ramekins and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
When ready to unmold, have your serving plates ready. Also, have a small bowl with warm water available so that you can dip each ramekin into the warm water to loosen the cream. The water should not be too hot or it will melt the edges too much and puddle on your plate.
Gently dip each ramekin into the warm water, and wipe the bottom of the ramekin once the cream has come away from the edges. Tilt the ramekin sideways so that the cream comes away from the side and creates an air pocket. This air pocket will help to create pressure and will push the chilled cream out onto the plate. Refrigerate the panna cotta on the plates and prepare the watermelon jello glaze.
Prepare the gelatin as described in the NOTES section above. You know that you have achieved the right thickness when you tilt the bowl and the jello sticks to the side as it begins to set. Gently brush the almost setting watermelon jello all around the chilled panna cotta. If it sets too fast and gets lumpy on the surface, don’t worry. Heat the bowl that contains the watermelon jello glaze (gently) in the microwave, then remove and continue delicately brushing the surface of the panna cotta with a pastry brush dipped into the jello glaze.
Once all of the panna cottas have been glazed, place the finished plates into the refrigerator. Whip some cream and dice some watermelon into small cubes to use as garnish. I also used some poppy seeds (to mimic watermelon seeds) on top of the cubed watermelon pieces, but you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. Keep the panna cotta refrigerated until ready to serve.