Monday, July 4, 2011

Albino Jello


Also known as panna cotta, for those who want to be fancy. It's surprisingly tasty, if you like "desserts that quiver", at any rate. I'm chinese, so that comes naturally to me.

1 quart half & half
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 and a half  to 2 packets of knox gelatin granules.
berries to serve with

Put the water in a small sauce pan and sprinkle in the gelatin. Stir it up and let it soak for about 10 minutes. Add the sugar and vanilla, and gently heat the mixture until the solids are completely dissolved, but do not boil it. Put the cream and half & half in a large bowl and stir in the sugar mix. You can either refrigerate the whole thing, or divide it into single servings, and chill it for at least 8 hours. Eat it with fresh berries. Real no brainer, huh?

If you want to put it in a fancy mold and have it keep its shape when you turn it out, go for the full 2 packets, or a little more, and chill it for 24 hours- gelatin takes that long to reach maximum setting power. I like it best when the texture is just firm enough to bounce in a spoon, and to serve it pleasantly cool rather than plumb cold. Vanilla is a subtle flavor and the smell/taste particles are more abundant closer to room temperature.

Sometimes I wonder why I like this stuff so much. It's very weird crap. It's got the taste and richness of vanilla ice cream, but has the texture of jello and it won't give you brain freeze.

This seems to be related to a number of milk-based desserts. If you were to add eggs, its ingredients would be almost identical to flan, creme brulee, and pastry cream. Taken as it is, anyone who has gone to church socials and family reunions in the midwest recognizes it as the plain white layer in a striped jello. If you've ever eaten that almond flavored dessert at a chinese restaurant then you've met its asian cousin, and yet, it seems to be very different from any of those things. The eggs in creme brulee, flan, and pastry cream result in a much heavier texture than panna cotta. The stripey jello version, with the cream sandwiched between layers of neon, looks like a chunk of lucite novelty jewelry from the sixties, and taste the way a product of the space age ought to: compellingly artificial. The chinese version in its best iterations is very light, not rich at all, and the almond flavor seems give it an almost palate cleansing effect. (At its worst, almond curd is a rubbery, watery, kludge of canned fruit cocktail and vaguely eau-de-toilette flavored agar bits.)

The texture is key, I think. Heat alters both the texture and flavor of the cream in cooked desserts, and agar, which is the traditional setting agent in almond curd, has a unique set of properties as well as a distinct, if subtle flavor. Gelatin gives panna cotta a delicate, silky quality which contrasts with the intensely rich flavor. There must be some happy alchemy between cow-products.

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