- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Cool, rich, creamy custard is one of my favorite desserts. It’s one of the perfect comfort foods, so refreshing and soothing. But I understand why so many cooks find custard tiresome to make, with all the diligent stirring over gentle heat it requires to ensure that the egg yolk mixture thickens smoothly without turning into scrambled eggs. And those who aren’t very enthusiastic about making custard to begin with like to make it even less when they have to do all that stirring over a hot stove in the middle of the summer.

Which is why I love “panna cotta” so much at this time of year.

Italian for “cooked cream,” panna cotta is barely cooked at all. In fact, it is a gelatin-thickened dessert in which the creamy element is scalded for just a couple of minutes on the stove. Then, all you have to do is stir it together with the other ingredients and sit back to let the gelatin perform its magic, giving the mixture a soft, trembling consistency as it cools.

Many panna cotta recipes highlight the utter simplicity of the preparation by flavoring the cream mixture with vanilla. You can, of course, add all sorts of other flavors if you like. One of my favorite versions includes in the mixture a shot of extra-strong brewed espresso to give the panna cotta a coffee flavor. Or I might swirl in a thick berry puree, giving the panna cotta a lovely pastel color. Melted chocolate is another favorite choice of flavoring. Or, for something a little more subtle, I like to substitute buttermilk for some of the cream, as I do in the following recipe, which gives the panna cotta a wonderfully tangy edge of flavor.

Most panna cottas are prepared in individual little molds, which then have to be unmolded onto chilled serving plates before serving. I prefer to eliminate that fussy step by instead spooning the mixture before chilling into individual martini glasses, which provide an especially elegant presentation.

Another way to bring variety to panna cotta is by garnishing it in all sorts of different ways at serving time. Some cooks will just scatter some fresh seasonal fruit around or on top of each portion. I sometimes like mine topped with a dollop of softly whipped cream, into which I’ll stir a sweet liqueur such as anise-flavored sambuca or orange-flavored Grand Marnier. You could also just drizzle the liqueur right over the panna cotta, without any whipped cream. Or, as I do here, you can make a simple compote of fresh summer berries, which you can nestle at the bottom of each martini glass or spoon over each serving.

However you serve it, your guests will never believe that you had to do virtually no slaving in a hot kitchen to make such a spectacular dessert.

BUTTERMILK PANNA COTTA “MARTINIS” WITH FRESH BERRY COMPOTE

Serves 6

FRESH BERRY COMPOTE

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 cups fresh raspberries or other ripe berries

BUTTERMILK PANNA COTTA

1 3/4 cups buttermilk

2 teaspoons powdered gelatin (1 envelope)

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Fresh mint sprigs or fresh berries, for garnish

First, make the Fresh Berry Compote: In a small saucepan, combine the water and sugar. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Add 1/2 cup of the berries. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and smashing the berries, until the mixture has a jam-like consistency. Remove the pan from the heat and gently fold in the remaining berries. Divide the compote evenly among 6 large martini glasses. Put the glasses in the refrigerator to chill.

For the Buttermilk Panna Cotta, pour the buttermilk into a medium mixing bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin powder evenly over the buttermilk and leave it to soften for 1 minute; then, stir the gelatin into the buttermilk. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, stir together the heavy cream and the sugar. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil, then remove immediately from the heat.

Pour the hot cream mixture over the buttermilk. Stir to combine. Stir in the lemon juice and the vanilla extract. Leave the mixture to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.

Remove the martini glasses from the refrigerator. Spoon the room-temperature panna cotta mixture evenly among the glasses. Return them to the refrigerator to chill until set, at least 2 hours.

Garnish with fresh mint sprigs or fresh berries before serving.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

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