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coffee panna cotta

Posted Feb 24 2011 1:04pm

The first time I had panna cotta (Italian cooked cream) was in a French-style bistro in the Midwest. It was late summer, the year after I graduated from college. I moved from Pittsburgh to Portland then back home to South Bend in order to sort out what to do next. I spent the summer looking for work and making photographs and meeting characters like the twenty-something hippie guy who could have walked directly out of a Paul Auster novel. He told me he was Jesus Christ and I think he meant it.

double coffee panna cotta

I didn’t plan on working in another restaurant. But I needed to support myself and my film habit so I applied for a job at the bistro. I received a call after a few weeks from the owner. He wanted to schedule an interview then another and another. I met with all the managers before he hired me. “The bistro is casual fine-dining,” he said, “we’re not stuffy here but we are professional so we know our food and wine and we move a kind of balletic grace in the restaurant.” Hmm, this wasn’t what I had in mind.

Five nights a week, I dressed in black and white and snugged my hair in a knot. While I tried to find that balance of enthusiasm and silence with each plate of food or glass of wine I set on a table, it wasn’t the easiest to perform. I carried heaving trays of plated food from the dining room to the kitchen and back because I had that film habit to support along with a growing interest in making dishes like wild mushroom risotto and vanilla bean panna cotta at home.

So it wasn’t until two weeks ago when I came up with this recipe for coffee panna cotta that I thought about that summer at the bistro and hippie Jesus and the dozens of 35 mm film I shot. Years later, that first bite of rich vanilla cream panna cotta is still with me.

Panna cotta always seemed fussy to make. But was I wrong. It’s as easy as brewing a strong cup of coffee and simmering milk, cream, sugar and a few extra ingredients in a pan. The results are rich nutty coffee and cream with a hint of chocolate crunch, you know, the kind of dessert you might want to serve on Oscar night and then again the next morning.

A few notes on the recipe. Typically, panna cotta is made with gelatin but this version uses agar powder (a neutral-tasting gelling agent made from seaweed) in its place. I prefer to use soy milk paired with cashew cream in this recipe but you can use dairy milk with equally good results.

single coffee panna cotta

Coffee Panna Cotta with cacao nibs

Yield 4 to 6 servings

1 cup organic milk (dairy or soy)

2 cups cashew cream (grind 1 cup raw cashews with 1 cup water in a high speed blender until smooth and creamy—save extra to stir into oatmeal or soup)

1/2 cup natural sugar cane

2 teaspoons agar powder

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup strong-brewed coffee

1/2 cup cacao nibs

Brush 4 to 6 ramekins or shallow cups with canola or other neutral-flavored oil. Place the milk, cashew cream, sugar, agar powder, vanilla, sea salt, and coffee in a medium pan. Whisk the ingredients together then allow mixture to rest for 10 minutes for the agar powder to dissolve.

Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and continue to simmer for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the agar is incorporated. Remove from heat and stir in the cacao nibs. Pour into the prepared ramekins and chill uncovered for 2 hours. Serve inside the cups or unmold onto plates.

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