This month’s Test Kitchen comes courtesy of former Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani. Coincidentally, I just watched Fabio during the premiere this week of “Top Chef All Stars” in which Fabio and a bunch of other also-rans from the various seasons get together for redemption. And let’s just say Fabio didn’t have an easy first episode.
But in his cookbook called “Café Firenze” (2009, Brio Press), co-written with Jacopo Falleni, the majority of you voted for me to try out the Panna Cotta Con le Fragole (cooked cream with balsamic strawberries) with 42 percent. A close second was the baby lamb cipollini (37 percent) and hardly anyone was interested in the pancetta-wrapped prawns (20 percent).
I was excited to try the panna cotta recipe because I love panna cotta and have been looking for a decent recipe. I tried a panna cotta recipe from another cookbook a long time ago and the texture came out grainy and rubbery.
You can see in the photo of the finished product that Fabio’s panna cotta recipe actually turned out beautifully, at least in appearance. So how easy was it? And how did it taste? Let me break it down as you see how it went in the test kitchen.
The first challenge was finding gelatin sheets (which is not the same as the gelatin powder sold in the packets). I’ve never used gelatin sheets before and you can’t get them at regular grocery stores like Safeway. I couldn’t even find them at Whole Foods. But luckily, these special golden gelatin sheets are sold at the Pasta Shop at the Rockridge Market Hall, right in my neighborhood.
The recipe says to let four gelatin sheets “bloom” in 1 cup of milk (btw, as usual I cut the recipe in half since I’m just cooking for myself). This is part of the problem I had with the recipe – it was very lacking in details. What does it mean to bloom? I assumed it meant to let the gelatin sheets melt, but it didn’t do anything. Luckily, the packet holding the sheets had instructions and it says to actually melt the gelatin sheets in a small saucepan over medium heat after soaking them in water. Since I had been soaking them in milk, I just ringed them out and then melted the sheets over heat in a pot and returned the melted gelatin to the milk.
Then I cooked the heavy cream with sugar. Another problem with the recipe, it listed 1/2 cup sugar and then 2 cups sugar. Which amount was I supposed to use? (The sugar is also used to make the balsamic strawberries.) I finally decided that balsamic vinegar is tart and would need more sugar, so I saved the 2 cups portion for that and only put the 1/2 cup of sugar to the cream. Then I added the lemon zest and vanilla extract after the cream started to bubble on the edges.
I added the sugar cream to the milk with gelatin and whisk everything together and then I was pretty much done making the panna cotta. I divided the mixture into glass cups (I like the suggestion of serving it in glasses instead of ramekins) and placed them in the refrigerator. Here you see the panna cotta all safe in my frig.
Now, here’s where I had problems again with the recipe. It doesn’t say how long to let the panna cotta set in the refrigerator. My guess was 2 hours or probably until it firms up and just giggles a bit. But I actually just let it sit overnight and I continued the recipe the next day by making the balsamic strawberry topping.
The recipe called for 3 cups of balsamic vinegar, which is actually a lot (and I only used 1.5 cups since I cut the recipe in half). I added the sugar and warmed up the balsamic vinegar in a pot until the sugar melted. The recipe doesn’t say how long to cook it so I just slowly cooked it to thicken the balsamic vinegar some more.
I also needed to pulse some strawberries to create a puree. I’m surprised how even in the winter I can still buy strawberries. I got mine fresh from the farmers market, so I know they’re local. Since I don’t have a blender or food processor, I used my hand blender to pulse the strawberries into a puree. The recipe then said to combine the puree with the balsamic vinegar.
I diced a few more fresh strawberries, placed them on top of my panna cotta and poured the balsamic vinegar mixture over everything. The recipe didn’t say to garnish the dish, but in the photo in the cookbook I saw that Fabio added a cinnamon stick and a sprig of mint with a pinch of brown sugar. So I did the same thing, even though he didn’t tell me to.
And as you can see, I thought the panna cotta looked beautiful almost like the photo in the cookbook. But I have to say right up front, the recipe was a total mess. It lacked a lot of instructions and I had to just guess a lot of steps. Just so you can see what I had to deal with, I have retyped the recipe exactly as it’s printed in the cookbook:
Panna Cotta Con Le Fragole
(excerpted from “Café Firenze Cookbook”)
3 C heavy cream
21 diced strawberries
1 C whole milk
3 C balsamic vinegar
1/2 C sugar
2 C granulated sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 C of pureed strawberry (just blend 1 cup of strawberry with a little water)
1 Tsp lemon zest
1/2 oz unflavored gelatin (four sheets)
For the cream gelatin:
In a bowl bloom gelatin with milk, combine cream and sugar and heat in a saucepan until bubbles appear around the edges. Add lemon zest and vanilla, add the cream to the milk and whisk. Strain and Divide among ramekins or glassware. To serve from ramekin, set in hot water, run a knife around the edge and turn out into dish.
For balsamic strawberries:
Whisk the sugar gradually into the balsamic vinegar (grains of sugar may remain at bottom of mix, either strain mix or heat on stove top until melted.) Stir in some of the strawberry pureed until flavor is well balanced and desirable. Pour over the diced strawberries and topped onto the gelatin.
Again, the above recipe is retyped word for word as presented in the cookbook. See what I mean about lack of directions?
My tips and warnings about this recipe:
- Do not follow the blooming directions with the gelatin sheets. Instead, follow the packet instructions, or in my case I soaked the sheets in the milk first and then removed it, ringing out excess milk, and then placed the sheets in a small non-stick saucepan and melted them (it happened really fast). Then it was ready to use.
- Use the smaller amount of sugar for the cream, and save the larger amount for the balsamic vinegar, even though it’s not clearly explained in the recipe.
- I don’t understand the call for 3 cups of vinegar. You end up making a big pot of sugar vinegar when you only need to pour just a few drops on top of the panna cotta. I would end up making just 1 cup of balsamic vinegar and cut the sugar and strawberries to match.
- Pour the cream mixture into a measuring cup when done because it’s easier to pour the mixture into the individual glasses that way.
Ease of cooking: Other than the lack of instructions or clear explanations in the recipe, the process was pretty easy. It’s basically like making milk Jello and warming up sugar balsamic vinegar to pour on top. Pretty easy and fast.
Taste: The panna cotta itself was great! The best texture I’ve made of a panna cotta ever, and the lemon zest and vanilla gave it a nice flavor. The texture was like anything I’ve had at a restaurant. The problem is once you pour the balsamic strawberries on top, it totally ruins the panna cotta. The balsamic vinegar, even with the sugar, is too strong a flavor to eat with the panna cotta. I rather just top the panna cotta with the strawberry puree blended with some simple syrup.
Overall grade: C-. I gave the recipe an F for the pour instructions, but an A because the panna cotta tasted so good, which resulted in a C average. But I took it down a notch to C- because I didn’t like the balsamic vinegar as a topping.
Don’t forget to vote on my next Test Kitchen with the poll on the upper right hand column. This month’s featured cookbook is my latest purchase – “Bobby Flay’s Throwdown!” cookbook. The cookbook includes recipes from Flay and challengers from past Throwdown episodes. I selected four recipes, and I will use the winning recipe from the episode you select. Since it’s the holidays, I included a couple of desserts that sounded like a nice fit for the season. So who’s ready for a throwdown?!
Previous Test Kitchens:
Noodles with Spicy Cabbage and Pork