This month’s featured dish is a wonderful dessert that brings together a traditional Italian recipe with a few tasty tropical favorites and two seasonal citrus varieties--just the thing to brighten up these short and dark winter days! Chef Debbi Dubbs, cookbook author / cooking teacher / culinary adventuress / website entrepreneur, uses her ingredient challenge items in a fruit topping that enhances the creamy texture and airy lightness of her version of Panna Cotta. Chef Deb, as she has been known by the Melissa’s family since her days as a part of the company’s test kitchen staff, gives her usual creative twist to the customary recipe that takes the dish’s normal silky-smoothness factor up a few notches!
Panna Cotta translated describes this dish succinctly: cooked cream. Though the recipe is very easy to prepare, consisting of just a few ingredients, there is a lot of culinary flexibility contained within this simplicity. As Chef Deb demonstrates, the white custard ingredients can be tweaked and there is an array of choices for the topping, which is always a part of this dish. Plus, there are presentation options of serving in or out of the container it was made in, i.e. to-mold-or-not-to-mold! This is a dish that should be a part of every home chef’s repertoire because it takes little time, and works for casual dining served in everyday ramekin crockery or, for more panache, free-standing on fine china or, as this article depicts, in long-stemmed crystal.
Interestingly, Panna Cotta has a history that dates back to before the invention of gelatin or the widespread distribution of sugar. It evolved because of the abundance of high-quality dairy products in the mountainous grazing region of Northern Italy; apparently boiled fish bones were used for a thickening agent and root crops to sweeten the pot. Personally, I will stick with Chef Deb’s recipe! In a web search, I found no other Panna Cotta formula that used sour cream and the result, as already stated, is smoother than smooth with an extra little tang over the traditional cream-milk blend.
Chef Deb was challenged to use Cocktail Grapefruitand Neapolitan Tangerines in a single recipe. Her Tropical Fruit Compote is really the star of this dish. The supporting cast of Pineapple, Asian Pear and Papaya deliver multiple textures and flavors to every bite. While even the bit-part players -- splash of liqueur, hint of mint and sprinkle of coconut -- entertained the palate in subtle nuance. Suffice it to say that there is a lot more going on in this dish than Chef Deb’s no-frills moniker, Vanilla Panna Cotta, suggests!
This is a wonderful recipe for entertaining. The Panna Cotta can be made a few days ahead of time and kept chilled. In fact, I thought that the fruit compote, left to stew for a time in its own juices in the refrigerator, developed a more full-bodied flavor.
The cocktail grapefruit is no grapefruit at all. It was named because it looks like a grapefruit; but it really doesn’t act like one. The fruit is a cross between a mandarin and a Pummelo. It is about the size of a small grapefruit with a mottled, green-yellow, thick skin, which definitely attests to its Pummelo heritage. However, the fruit’s extremely sweet flavor obviously takes after its mandarin side. The variety is a bit seedy, which necessitates careful cleaning during the segmenting process, but the work is rewarded tenfold with a unique taste that balances well with the other fruits Deb selected for her compote.
It may be true that if you have seen one tangerine, you have seen them all, as there really are only slight visual differences between varieties. Taste is an entirely different matter and the Neapolitan Tangerine, also called a Page Mandarin, is considered the best-in-show by tangerine/mandarin aficionados! The hybrid is a Minneola Tangelo and Clementine orange mix. The Neapolitan has the same high juice content as a Minneola and the extraordinary sweetness of a Clementine, which puts the variety at the top of the most-tasty citrus chart!
This brings us to the art of segmenting citrus that is called for in Chef Deb’s preparation. Segmenting is a technique that I think was invented to torture sous chefs. Once a chef earns his or her whites this task is passed off to an assistant as quickly as professionally possible! Then, in turn, that sous chef’s own technique becomes the object of intense scrutiny until that chef earns the authority to delegate this task. For all of you without a sous chef to demand perfection from, just follow Chef Deb’s clear, *step-by-step instructions within her recipe.
If you have never attempted to segment citrus, the object is naked segments. Meaning no peel, pith or encasing membrane – just the delicate vesicles that somehow hold their shape if done right and handled with care. Start with the Cocktail Grapefruit; it is larger than the tangerine, with wide membrane lines to guide your knife in the vertical slice and each segment pops out of its membrane with little encouragement. Once you get the hang of the technique, tackle the smaller mandarin. The naked segments best absorb the tasty marmalade coating, plus the fruit color is so much more vivid on its own. I bought a few extra to practice on, because these segments really should be void of all extraneous stuff, whether there is a chef de cuisine standing over you or not! Once I got into the segmenting groove, it was a fun challenge to accomplish.
The choice of liqueur for the fruit compote is another place for a bit of individual taste preference and creativity. Chef Deb suggested Crème de Cassis, Grand Marnier or plain OJ for those preferring no alcohol. The juice gave me another ingredient idea that I happened to have in my libation cabinet, left over from January’s Guest Chef article: Aperol. This bright orange, low-alcohol Italian liqueur that is still made from an ancient recipe, that includes infusions of bitter and sweet oranges as well herbs and roots, paired well with all the fruit and just seemed an appropriate swap. So I admit to departing just two tablespoons from the original recipe, but only because I know that Chef Deb is the first one to encourage experimentation in the kitchen.
In fact, for more fun in your own kitchen, visit Debs Kitchen, via her website of the same name, for a full pantry of culinary-related information, recipes, techniques, adventures, recommendations and lore! Chef Deb is passionate about spreading the knowledge of cooking with fresh seasonal ingredients. Like her dish for this article, the site captures that commitment to good, healthy eating with creative, informative and entertaining formats that have something for every skill level, be you a bewildered novice, seasoned home chef or serious professional. I enjoyed scrolling through Deb’s multifaceted website almost as much as I did her not-so-plain Vanilla Panna Cotta – I said almost. Happy forks!
Vanilla Panna Cotta
Serves 6, ½ cup servings
1 packet Gelatin
2 tablespoons Cold Water
3 cups Heavy Cream
½ cup Sugar
Pinch of Salt
1 Vanilla Bean, split with seeds scraped
1 cup Sour Cream
Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in a small bowl and let stand 5 minutes, until dissolved.
Warm cream, sugar, salt, vanilla extract and vanilla bean in a saucepan over low heat, do not boil. Remove from heat, stir in gelatin mixture, and let cool, 10 to 15 minutes at room temperature. Remove the vanilla bean. Whisk in sour cream. Pour into individual ramekins and refrigerate until firm.
Tropical Fruit Compote Topping
¼ cup Orange Marmalade
2 tablespoons Crème de Cassis, Grand Marnier, Aperol or Orange Juice
2 tablespoons Mint leaves, chopped
2 Cocktail Grapefruit, segmented
4 Neapolitan Tangerines, segmented
¼ cup Organic Pineapple Gold, small cubes
1 Korean Pear, cut into small pieces
¼ cup Papaya, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon Dried Coconut Chips, chopped
Raspberries (to garnish)
Melt marmalade and liqueur or juice in a saucepan, add mint and cool to room temperature.
Use a serrated knife to trim the tops and bottoms of the grapefruit and tangerines. Place each fruit on a cutting board, bottom down, then make vertical cuts deep enough to remove all the peel, pith and membrane from the surface of each fruit. Hold each peeled fruit in your hand and carefully cut the fruit vesicles away between each side to remove the fruit segments.
Mix all the fruit together and toss with marmalade mixture. Top each vanilla Panna Cotta with fruit. Garnish with a few raspberries and serve.