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.
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.
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.