Another post about panna cotta? Well, yes—but it’s with a particular purpose, so allow me to indulge myself.
It’s true that I love panna cotta, but it does have a distinct shortcoming: vegetarians and vegans cannot eat it. Panna cotta is held together with gelatin, and gelatin is an animal product, derived from bones and cartilage (I know, best not to think abut it too much).
But a solution exists: agar agar.
Agar-agar is a flavorless gel, derived from cooked and pressed seaweed; it is available flaked, powdered, or in bars (the photo above is flakes). It is most often used in Asian desserts and candies, but it has been gaining popularity in Western countries with the rise in vegetarianism. I had never worked with agar agar before, so when I was home in the bay area this Christmas, I picked up a few packets from Whole Foods. And what better test subject than my favorite dessert?
It so happens that agar-agar has two bonuses that make it worth trying, regardless of vegetarian or carnivore status. First, whereas gelatin takes several hours to set, agar-agar takes about 1 hour. Procrastinators rejoice! Second, unlike gelatin, it does not require refrigeration to set.
I read multiple references to these two features, both in books and on manufacturer web pages, but I was skeptical. Analysis was in order.
I decided on a batch of fruit “Jell-O”, made from apple juice, before venturing into the panna cotta arena. I dissolved, heated, whisked, poured into a bowl, and set the timer. After an hour of hijinks with Nick, the “beep beep” went off (I am regressing into toddler-speak; don’t be surprised if future posts read along the lines of “Eat ‘nana! Mmm. No-No! Mine! Night-Night.”), so I shuffled back to the kitchen to assess part one of my experiment.
Sure enough, it was set to perfection: a pleasantly soft texture, not the least bit rubbery, and definitely reminiscent of the best nursery food jell-o. Nick wanted to eat the whole bowl, but I limited him to a few bites to continue with phase two of my research trial: would agar-agar Jell-o remain set if left, unrefrigerated, for several hours? I draped a clean kitchen towel over the bowl’s top, and headed to the park with Nick.
Spinning on a tire swing until nauseous does wonders for eradicating all thoughts from one’s brain, so by the time I returned I had forgotten all about checking my test. It wasn’t until Kevin arrived home that my memory returned. He peaked under the towel at the bowl of half-eaten apple gel. With what is as close to a plea as Kevin can rouse, he uttered the following: “This won’t have any role in dinner tonight, will it?”
Oh, Kevin. I reassured him, then pushed spoon into gel. Sure enough, it was still set, with no discernable difference from my earlier tasting (four hours previous). What a great discovery! I still prefer to have the gel chilled (I like my gelatin cool; there's something faintly disturbing about room temperature/warm jell-o), but this presents some great opportunities for future experimentation (especially for entertaining a larger group or party: panna cotta and other desserts can be set out without worry of melting).
I moved on to trying the agar-agar in some of my light panna cotta recipes. The results are stellar. I made it with fat free evaporated milk and yogurt (per yesterday’s recipe); honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference between it and the panna cotta made with gelatin.
But then I went a step further, making a vegan/dairy-free panna cotta that can be enjoyed by lactose-intolerant and vegan friends as well (Kevin thinks I’m devising some sort of cuckoo plan for global panna cotta conversion; what a delicious domination that would be!).
I wasn’t keen on straight soy or rice milk (tasted flat and rubbery); it definitely needed more creaminess to make it panna cotta-worthy. I finally settled on a combination of canned light coconut milk and vanilla soy yogurt. The results are rich and creamy, and I also favor the snow-white color. But like other recipes I’ve offered, I want all of you to consider this a stencil for all varieties of flavors: try different spices, extracts and toppings, whatever you can dream up.
Keep in mind that highly acidic ingredients, such as lemons, strawberries, oranges, and other citrus fruits, may require more agar-agar than the recipe calls for. Also, enzymes in fresh mangoes, papaya, fresh ginger and pineapple break down the gelling ability of the agar-agar so that it will not set. You can use these fruits in topping (as I have done here, with mango) or cook them before adding to the recipe (the cooking neutralizes the enzymes so that the agar-agar can set).
One final point: agar-agar can be pricey. The packets I purchased at Whole Foods ran about seven dollars per 1-ounce package. But prices are far better online and, if you live in a larger metropolitan area, at Asian grocery stores. I picked up an identical pouch at an Asian grocery store (after my Whole Foods visit) for four dollars. Here are some online sources; I plan to use one or the other when my current supply runs out:
Barry Farm Agar Powder (this is an excellent deal: 4 ounces for $7.90; the Eden brand pouch I have (the one that cost $7.00) is only 1 ounce.
Vegetarian Vanilla Panna Cotta with Fresh Mango Sauce
You can use other “milks” for the light coconut: soy, rice, or almond. I prefer the light coconut milk. It does not lend a notable coconut flavor, but rather acts as a neutral backdrop for other taste combinations. If you want to play up the coconut flavor for a tropical panna cotta, add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of coconut extract.
I find that soy milk and rice milk, in particular, have a distinctive soy/rice flavor which I don’t like for the panna cotta.
1 and 1/4 cups canned light coconut milk
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar, divided use
2 teaspoons agar agar powder OR 2 tablespoons agar agar flakes
1 cup soy vanilla yogurt (preferably Silk brand)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large ripe mango, peeled, pitted and cut into chunks
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
Optional: fresh berries, mint leaves
In a medium saucepan combine the coconut milk, 1/4 cup sugar and agar agar. Let stand 5 minutes. Bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, 8 minutes, or until agar has mostly dissolved (there will be some flecks of translucent agar in mixture), stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
Strain mixture through fine-mesh sieve into small pitcher or measuring cup. Whisk in yogurt and vanilla until smooth. Pour into 4 individual ramekins/custard cups OR decorative glasses. Transfer to refrigerator. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour until set (or up to 24 hours).
Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, process the mango chunks, lime juice and remaining 2 teaspoons sugar until smooth. Refrigerate sauce until ready to use.
To serve, immerse bottom half of ramekin or custard cup in hot water about 15 seconds. Run a clean small knife around edge to loosen. Invert onto dessert plate (Note: if using glasses, no unmolding required). Serve with mango sauce, garnished with mint and berries (optional). Makes 4 servings.