May has already proven to be one of those months. Friends visiting. Friends moving away. Grandparents departing. Birthdays non-stop. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that almost all of my friends were born in May. Having seven friends with birthdays between the 9th and the 27th has always made May a fun, but very full month.
The month began with a somewhat foreseen but still overwhelming loss. My grandfather, whose health had been slowly declining over the last four years, passed away quietly on May 1st. He was ninety-four. Through his passing I’ve been reminded that I am of the breed of those who deal by not dealing. And I’ve realized that not dealing ultimately kicks your ass (and then you end up having to check out from your life for about 10 days).
That evening I had tickets to see one of my favorite bands ever at the Fillmore. My bestie and I went to our first Fillmore show when we were teenagers, so I get a tad nostalgic whenever I go there. I know this sounds dramatic, and I feel like my fifteen-year-old self as I say this, but I think that show changed my life a little bit. It was that amazing. I’d like to think of that night as the musical equivalent of my twenties – fun and magical and heart-wrenching at times. Thank the Lord for Canadian indie rock.
A few days later I was sent on assignment to photograph dishes at the new student-run bistro that just opened on the Laney College campus. The Bistro featured an Italian menu that day, and my photo partner and I were able to sample some of the dishes that we shot. We very reluctantly gave the osso bucco back to the wait staff so they could do their pre-service tasting. But we enjoyed the short ribs and gnocchi that were sent out afterwards. And luckily for us the pastry students produced some really impressive desserts that day, including an insanely good chocolate torte and a very nice olive oil cake, but my favorite was most definitely the panna cotta. Naturally, I’ve had panna cotta on the brain ever since.
I’ve always overlooked panna cotta on dessert menus. I usually go for the chocolate or some sort of fruit pie or tart. To be quite honest, panna cotta was never very alluring to me – what’s so great about cream and gelatin? I stand corrected. It’s ridiculous how good and decadent panna cotta can be. It’s creamy and rich and custard-like without involving a single egg yolk. The fact that it is so simple is really, in my opinion, what makes it special.
While ogling the pages of the A16 cookbook (more about that another day), I stumbled upon this honey panna cotta with a panzanella of blackberries and buckwheat cookies. What a dream come true! The combination of silky panna cotta, blackberries and crunchy cookies is absolutely lovely. Actually, the cookies alone are quite fantastic – perfect coin-size bites of sweet buttery goodness. I also loved the unexpected elements of basil and black pepper. The beauty of panna cotta is that it can be so elegant and yet it is practically foolproof to make. It literally takes minutes to throw the ingredients together. Then you get to pop it in the fridge, forget about it for a few hours, and voila! So much easier than any cake or tart. I can’t wait to make this again at the peak of blackberry season. I am truly converted.
honey panna cotta with panzanella of blackberries and buckwheat cookies
from A16 Food + Wine by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren
honey panna cotta
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 pint blackberries, picked over
2 to 3 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice
6 large fresh basil leaves
freshly ground black pepper
to make the panna cotta:
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let soften for at least 3 minutes. In a small pot, heat 1 cup of the cream over medium heat until warm. Stir in the honey and salt and continue to heat the mixture until it begins to simmer. Remove from the heat, add the gelatin, and slowly stir in the remaining 1 cup cream.
Divide the mixture among 6 nonstick standard muffin cups or 6 (3-ounce) paper cups*. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours.
to make the cookies:
In a food processor, combine the buckwheat flour, all-purpose flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder and pulse to blend. Scatter the butter over the flour mixture and pulse until the mixture appears coarse and crumbly. Add the egg yolk and cream and pulse a few more times. The dough will appear as if it is starting to come together, though it will still be somewhat dry and crumbly.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead gently for about 2 minutes, until it comes together. Divide the dough into 3 equal portions. Using your fingers, and widening the distance between them as the dough extends, roll each portion back and forth into a long rope 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter. Transfer the ropes to a baking sheet and freeze for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, position the oven racks so that one is in the center of the oven and the other is in the upper third, then preheat the oven to 325°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly butter them.
Remove the dough from the freezer. Using a sharp knife, cut each log into 1/4-inch thick slices, and place the slices on the prepared baking sheets, spacing them 1 inch apart.
Bake the cookies, rotating the sheets once, for 15 minutes, or until they are medium gold and slightly puffed. Transfer the sheets to wire racks and let the cookies cool.
to make the panzanella:
In a bowl, toss the blackberries with the sugar to taste and the lime juice and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Right before serving, tear the basil into small pieces, scatter over the berries, and toss to mix. Toss in the cookies and mix until they are moistened.
Unmold each panna cotta by running a paring knife around its edge** and inverting it onto a plate, placing it off-center. Divide the panzanella evenly among the plates, and finish each plate with a grind of black pepper.
* I used standard size silicone baking cups, which I really like because they are freestanding. Be sure to place them on a cookie sheet before filling as they are a bit difficult to pick up once filled.
** You can place the your molds in warm water for a minute or so when you’re ready to unmold, which helps to release the panna cotta and gives them a smoother finish.