Panna cotta recipe

One of the fun things about living in Europe is that there are other people who’ve moved here (like me) who love their local culinary scene (like me.)

A few lucky guests each week follow along (or rather, try to keep up!) with Judy Witts Francini, aka Divina Cucina. A bundle of energy, each morning armed with an empty basket and a head full of menu ideas, she takes the Central Market in Florence by storm. A day begins with espresso at her favorite pastry shop, Antica Pasticceria Sieni (via San Antonio) where you sip espresso served with spicy wedges of panpepato, crisp brutti ma buoni (which means “ugly, but good”), and delicate cream-filled pastries.

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Soon after, you’re exploring the market with Judy. I tasted well-aged balsamic vinegar, found delicate tiny wild strawberries, and sampled aged sheep-milk Pecorino cheeses…which could make even the most devoted, cheese-loving Francophile pack their bags for Tuscany.

After thoughtfully selecting wines for lunch from her local expert at Casa del Vino (via dell’Ariento, 16/r), the sandwich maker fixed me a surprise snack for my train trip that evening. When I unwrapped my sandwich, I found Tuscan bread stuffed with anchovy and olive oil marinated tomatoes, arugola, and creamy burrata cheese from Apulia.

Then we walked back to Judy’s apartment and participated in some hands-on cooking demonstrations.

Judy is a dynamo of knowledge, full of great culinary tips, such as…

1. Don’t listen to music or watch tv while cooking, which distracts you from the food as it crackles, sizzles, and simmers.

2. Used good olive oil.
The best olive oils are pressed from hand-picked olives. Lesser-quality olive oils use olives that fall from the tree, which causes them to bruise and become prone to rancidity. That’s why cheaper olive oils turn bad after a few months while better oils last much longer. And tastes better!

3. Always heat olive oil first in your saute pan before adding meat or vegetables.
This allows food to sear and cook quickly, which augments flavors. An exception is fresh garlic, which should be heated at the same time as the oil, since it’s easy to burn.

4. Techniques are more important than recipes or details.
Even if you’re not a master chef like Judy, use recipes as guidelines for cooking. While a recipe may indicate a cooking time of 20 minutes, you may find it takes more or less time in your kitchen. And you may like more salt. Or your lemons are larger, and sweeter. Learning techniques, rather than just following recipes, will make you cook like an Italian.

5. Almost all true balsamic vinegars are aged for at least 10 years. Anything less is not a real balsamic. The stuff you buy in shops labeled ‘balsamic’ with the consistency of water is not true balsamic and has added colorings and flavorings. Once you taste the real thing, you’re eyes will roll back in your head and you will hallucinate.

I’ve been cooking professionally for over half of my life and I’ve tasted some mighty fine food, but one of the best things I’ve ever had, she made right in front of us: Herb Garlic Rub. It’s something that anyone can make and tastes infinitely better than those stale mixtures one buys in a jar. Judy shucked a few large branches of fresh rosemary leaves. She added the leaves from an enormous bunch of fresh sage, a generous handful of salt, and 4-5 cloves of fresh garlic. Then she chopped and chopped and chopped until very fine, then left the mxiture on the cutting board until dry, which takes a day or two. Once dry, store the mixture in a jar. You can use the Herb Garlic Rub on any meat, fish, poultry, or vegetable. Add a bit to a bowl of good olive oil for dipping bread.

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Then in an amazing feat of culinary skill, replicating something that intrigued me at the market, Judy split a long loaf of Italian bread lengthwise. She generously poured some good olive oil over the insides (without measuring, folks…), dusted it with Herb Garlic Rub, then tucked a pork tenderloin inside. After wrapping the whole thing in foil, she baked it directly on the oven rack (in a 375 degree oven for about one hour.) As she unwrapped it, the overwhelming aroma of herbs and garlic permeated the air. None of us could be polite any longer, and we begin ripping off hunks of the herb-and-olive-oil infused bread and stuffing them in our mouths.

For dessert Judy whipped up Panna Cotta, one of Italy’s most beloved desserts. Although Judy uses local Tuscan cream, you can substitute whole milk or buttermilk for some of the cream. We tossed tiny wild strawberries and plump raspberries in sugar to macerate, then piled some atop each Panna Cotta and drizzled it with an unrestrained pour of 30 year old syrupy-sweet balsamic vinegar.
Rare, and outrageously expensive, Judy kept advising, “Pour on more! Pour on more! That stuff tastes great!”

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Divina Cucina Panna Cotta
6 Servings

4 cups heavy cream (or substitute half-and-half, or use half buttermilk)
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 packages unflavored gelatin, such as Knox

Soften gelatin over 6 tablespoons cold water.

Heat cream over low heat with the sugar and stir until dissolved. Do not boil. Remove from heat.
Stir in gelatin until melted. Add the vanilla. Pour into glass serving goblets or bowls.

Chill for at least 2 hours. Once firm, top with sweetened berries and aged balsamic vinegar, or lots of shavings of chocolate.

Quick Candied Cherry Recipe

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The arrival of cherries means the dreariness of winter is definitely over, and I can finally look forward to a long, delicious summer of fresh apricots, raspberries, nectarines, peaches, and plums. Once cherries became reasonable at the market this is a great way to use and preserve them when the price drops and when the season is in full swing, or nearing the end, I find myself using fresh cherries as fast as I can pit ‘em.

Although you might think it’s funny to candy fresh something fresh, there are times perhaps your cherries aren’t super-flavorful (like too early or too late in the season) and candying augments and intensifies flavor. And as a bonus, you’ll end up with a lovely brilliant-red syrup which you can mix with Champagne for a fizzy and festive kir Royale. Once candied, these cherries will keep for a few weeks in the refrigerator. Spoon them over vanilla ice cream, stir them into yogurt, and toss them with nectarines or peaches for a summer cobbler.

Quick Candied Cherries

  • 1 pound (450 g) fresh sweet or sour cherries, rinsed
  • 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) water
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Remove the stems and pit the cherries (I use a handheld cherry pitter.)

In a large non-reactive saucepan (at least 4 quarts/liters) bring the cherries, water, sugar, and lemon juice to a boil.

Reduce the heat so the cherries are cooking at a low rolling boil. Cook for 25 minutes, stirring frequently during the last 10 minutes of cooking to make sure the cherries are cooking evenly and not sticking.

Once the syrup is mostly reduced and a brilliant ruby-color, similar to the consistency of maple syrup, remove the pan from the heat and cool the cherries to room temperature.

After the cherries are cool, they can be refrigerated for up to one week, or frozen in zip-top freezer bags for up to one year.



Recommended Cherry Pitters

OXO Good Grips Cherry Pitter: Like all Oxo products, this one gets high marks from users.

Leifheit Cherry Pitter: All-metal cherry pitter, popular in Europe.

Leifheit Pro-Line Cherry Pitter: (I love that name!) This is a terrific tool if you have a lot of cherries to pit. Keeps the cherries in a container, so it’s less-messy to use than others.

Related Recipes

White Chocolate and Cherry Scones

No-Recipe Cherry Jam

Pickled Sour Cherries

Easy Jam Tart

Peach Leaf Wine

Quick Mincemeat Recipe

Red Wine-Poached Rhubarb

Upside Down Cake

Almond Cake

Caramelized White Chocolate Ice Cream

The Perfect (New) Macaron

One of the great places for lunch in Paris is Cuisine au Bar (8, rue du Cherche-Midi), which has been touted as the French version of the sushi bar. The servers are welcoming and generous, and the tartines (open-faced sandwiches) are the most inventive and marvelous in all of Paris. A dedicated friend of mine lunches there every day.

I met Pim for lunch, and we both ordered the same thing: the chicken sandwich, a toasted slice of Poilâne levain bread (the bakery’s just next door) moistened with homemade mayonnaise, slices of plump chicken, filets of anchovies and a scattering of capers, which kept rolling off. We both systematically added flecks of coarse sea salt, then consumed. Delicious. Pim, being far more polite than I am, ate her sandwich perfectly reasonably with a knife and fork. I wolfed my down, polishing it off in record time, licking my fingers afterward.

After braving La Poste together afterward, we parted, making plans for eating Thai food with other Paris bloggers in June. However after we parted, I noticed she made a beeline to the astonishing pastry shop of Pierre Hermé on the Rue Bonaparte. So a few days later, I returned as well, and tasted one of the most stunning pastries of my life, his Arabesque macaron, which Pim had rhapsodized over earlier in the week.

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Normally a classicist, I prefer my macarons with chocolate, coffee, or pistachio. But this was an amazing creation. Delicate, crackly pistachio-dusted meringue cookies flavored with apricot. The filling was a melange of apricot cream and caramelized nut praline. Each season, M. Hermé introduces new flavors of macarons, some successful (olive oil-vanilla, rose-lychee, and caramel-beurre-salé) and some less so (his white truffle and ketcup come to mind.) However Arabesque was perfection and I was sorry that I only bought one.

I will be going back tomorrow for another.

Pierre Hermé

72, rue Bonaparte (6th)

184, rue de Vaugirard (15th)

4, rue Cambon (1st)-macarons & chocolates only

58, avenue Paul Doumer (16th)-macarons and chocolates only

Related Links

Pierre Hermé’s Ketchup Macaron Recipe

Sweet and Stinky

French Chocolate Macaron Recipe

I Love Macarons!

Making French Macarons



Tuscan and Torino Treasures

Having returned from my trip to Italy, narrowly escaping the hairy fangs of the too-vigilant EasyJet luggage police, I returned with a suitcase full of great Italian foods: chocolates from Amadei, and Domori, coffee (and more chocolate) from Slitti, jars of bittersweet chestnut honey, 12-year old syrupy Balsamic vinegar, luscious sun-dried tomatoes, and of course, bottles of fruity Tuscan olive oil.

Fresh Dried-Pasta
I’ve seen a lot of noodles in my time, but stopping in Pastificio Defilippis (via Lagrange, #39, in Torino) I had to take a moment to collect myself. Lining the walls were every kind of dried pasta imaginable, all made right there on the premises. Members of my group made a beeline for the pasta al cioccolato, but for some reason they ignored the coiled-up stewed eels available for antipasti.

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Mesmerized, I found these two pastas irresistible. One I nicknamed ‘bellybutton pasta’, which I had to translate for the pasta maker by lifting up my shirt (“Boys Gone Wild: Torino!”), and the other is a whole-wheat pasta. If you haven’t had whole-wheat pasta, it’s great tossed with fresh or good-quality tinned tuna, pitted olives, sun-dried tomatoes, finely-shopped anchovies, fresh thyme leaves, topped with crumbled feta cheese.

Cocoa Beans
Is chocolate good for your health? There’s no easy answer for that (although a simple yes would do.) Some research proves that the antioxidants in chocolate have health benefits. Yet a chocolate-maker that I know says most of the antioxidants disappear during processing.
What I tell people is that any health benefits in chocolate are likely found in the cacao beans. Either way, it’s unlikely you’ll get any health benefits from, um, say, Chocolate Cheesecake. Skip the ‘cheesecake’ part and just go for the chocolate.

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These are cacao beans from Domori that I was blogging about earlier. They are the best beans I’ve tasted.

Lardo
(If you’re kosher, or vegetarian, skip this section….)
I don’t know what prompted me to try lardo in the first place. It’s pork fat, thinly sliced, and served on warm toast with a flint of rosemary leaves. But it’s one of those things that if you eat it once, you’re hooked and you will never, ever get over the craving for. We don’t get Food Network in Europe, but it seems every time I see it in America, Mario Batali is going on and on (and on) about lardo.
The name alone is a blatant indication that it’s probably not good for you. But imagine grilled Tuscan bread moistened with just-pressed olive oil, draped over it are soft, rich and buttery slices of lardo. MMmmmmm….

Here’s a photo so you can avoid a similar fate:

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Formenton Garfagnana
I love polenta. And it’s impossible to find in France. You have to make do with instant polenta which isn’t bad, if you like baby food. At a lunch in a villa near Lucca, the chef gifted me a sack of artisan polenta, called formenton garfagnana. When I asked him what made it different from polenta, he began getting very excited, explaining it in detail, in rapid-fire Italian. I didn’t have the heart to interrupt and let him know that I had know idea what he was talking about, so I kept nodding, avoiding the deer-in-the-headlights look. So if anyone can edify us all, post it in the comments section here. (Preferably in English!)

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Chestnut Honey
Years ago I innocently dipped my finger in a jar of Italian chestnut honey, anticipating sweet syrup. Instead I recoiled from the bitter taste which lingered way too long in my mouth. Now that I’m all grown up and so much more sophisticated, I begin each morning with a smear of velvety, savory chestnut honey on buttered toast. Yum! Is this stuff good. It can be expensive in the United States, but in Italy, it’s common. Italians use so much of it that I even bought some from a street vendor in Pisa. I ended up lugging home in my carry-on enough jars of chestnut honey to last me for at least a year, I hope.

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Two extraordinary vendors in the Central Market in Florence will mail order authentic Tuscan foods directly from their stands:

And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can visit the warehouse of Village Imports, which has open warehouse sales throughout the year.

France 1: American 0

So here I was, about to share with you tales of a market visit and meal I had in Florence, Italy, with my friend Judy, better known as Divina Cucina. We found fragrant, tiny wild strawberries, so she made a terrific Panna Cotta to serve with them, topped with a drizzle of aged, syrupy balsamic vinegar. Then while typing away (and procrastinating at the same time…does that count as multitasking?), I was reading other food blogs and noticed that Amy and Clotilde just posted Panna Cotta stories. Sigh! So I’ll save that for another entry and if you absolutely have to make Panna Cotta right now, one of their recipes should hold you over until then.

Instead, I get to rant.
I wish I had a euro for each time someone said to me,
“What do you do all day in Paris? It must be so exciting!”

Well, let’s look at how I spent yesterday morning, shall we?

I decided to have some friends over and make Braised Duck Legs in red wine. I decided the perfect accompaniment would be Cipolline Agro Dolce, another recipe from Judy. Before you say anything, I know, I know. You’re supposed to, 1) visit the market first, 2) find what’s in season, 3) then decide what to cook. Of course I know that. One of the many things I absorbed in my thirteen years at Chez Panisse. But I am the kind of guy that likes to head out shopping with a list. Otherwise, dinner would have been whatever was in my kitchen: radishes, olives, and Pocket Coffee. (see previous post)

(Judy’s recipe calls for 1 1/2 pounds of peeled boiling onions, which you cook on the stovetop with a cup of so of white wine, enough to cover, a few tablespoons of sugar, vinegar, and olive oil, salt, and a chili pepper. You cook it all until the onions are glazed and caramelized. Delicious!)

Since there are no outdoor markets in Paris on Monday, I figured that I’d simply go to the supermarket and pick up boiling onions (Italians call them cipolline.) I first went to Monoprix, which seems to have everything…except what you went there to get in the first place. Sure enough, no small onions. I then went across the street to Ed, which is a discount supermarket and kind of grim and unsavory. The gate was down: “Closed For Inventory.” Grrr.

I then walked over to Franprix, another supermarket. No onions. How can this be? One of the greatest food cities in the world, and no boiling onions? I decided to try Picard which specializes in frozen foods. People here rave about Picard (although I wonder, “Who the heck buys frozen baguettes when there are 1263 bakeries in Paris?”…and yes, I do know those kinds of things.) Picard has everything frozen; sacks of red currants, figs, and sour cherries, pigeons stuffed with foie gras and chocolate-glazed ice cream profiteroles. I scanned the freezers passing over frozen baby artichoke hearts, sliced leeks, minced sorrel, and fava beans.
But, of course, no onions.

After two hours of searching from supermarket to supermarket, I decided to call it quits. Heading home, I wanted to at least stop at Nicolas and get some wine, since I didn’t want to go home dejected and empty-handed. As I approached, the door wouldn’t budge.

“Open Monday, 4pm-8pm.”

Defeat.
France 1: American 0.

Late yesterday afternoon, on my way to yoga, I stopped at Shopi, another supermarket and my last resort. Sure enough, there were little filets (mesh sacks) of boiling onions buried within the produce section.

The label read, “Produit d’Argentine”.
It was a very long journey…for both of us.

As you can imagine, I was very careful not to burn them.

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So, to answer your question…That’s what I do all day.

Pocket Coffee Haiku

Trim cube of chocolate

Gush out liquid espresso!

Clever caffeine cloak

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Domori Chocolate

Gianluca Franzoni is the master chocolatier at Domori. He’s the person who is responsible for selecting the beans and roasting them to perfection. Cacao beans, like coffee, need to be roasted to bring out their flavor. Domori uses no vanilla in their chocolate, unlike other chocolate companies, since Gianluca believes that vanilla masks some of the flavors he coaxes out of the beans to make his chocolate. I immediately liked him because of his dedication to making truly fine chocolate….(and perhaps because his shirt would match the colors of my web site.) Aside from making great chocolate, the Italians really know how to dress.

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As you can imagine, Domori is a chocolate company that is rather revolutionary…and in a country that’s no stranger to revolutions. If you’ve been to Italy, you know the Italians are lively, creative, wonderful people. And they’re not afraid to do things a bit differently.

When Gianluca told me that Domori chocolates were so smooth that even the 100% bar of unsweetened chocolate, called Puro, was not the least bit bitter, (even without the sugar,) I frankly didn’t believe him. But Puro was indeed great. It’s made from 100% Sur Del Lago beans, which is used in some of the best chocolates I’ve tasted. For the hard-core chocolophiles, crunchy dark Ocumare cacao beans, known as Kashaya, are roasted whole and meant to be eaten just as they are. I mean, what kind of people pack up whole roasted cocoa beans and for hard-core chocolate-lovers to eat? The same people who brought us gelato, gianduiotti, and panna cotta.

As you can probably tell by now, I love Italians!

Domori is one of the few chocolate companies that actually owns their own plantations in Venezuela. Most of their beans are criollo hybrids, which is considered the best cacao available today. (The term ‘cacao’ refers to the beans used to make chocolate, and ‘cocoa’ usually refers to the powder made from the beans after they’re roasted and pulverized.)

We tried a sample of all of their chocolates, guided by Gianluca….

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Esmereladas is their chocolate made from Ecuadorian cacao, that had a surprising tropical banana-like aroma and flavor. Rio Caribe, from their Venezuelan plantation, had an earthy, musky character while the Sambirano from the island of Madagascar (where a lot of vanilla is grown) had a raisin-sweet taste and a gorgeous red hue. Perhaps the most intriguing was the Puertofino, which was made from a rare, pure Ocumare cacao, which we all agreed had a delightful creamy taste, even though it was pure bittersweet chocolate with no dairy added.

If this is making you crave Domori chocolate, you can order their chocolate (as well as Tuscan chocolates from Slitti and Amadei) online at Chocosphere.

So onward in my pursuit of more great chocolate here in Tuscany.
Next I’ll visit Slitti, which aside from blending their superb chocolates, they roast amazing coffee…which says a lot, since each time I sip an espresso in Italy, I fall into a deep trance-like state.
In the walled city of Lucca, where we’re staying, I’ve had a chance to stock up on Amadei chocolate as well. Amedei specializes in very rare cacaos, such as Chuao and Porcelana and is another of the world’s great chocolates.

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Eating in Tuscany includes focaccia flatbread permeated with olive oil and sprinkled generously with coarse salt, soup made with the Lucchese wholegrain known as farro, and I’m stockpiling delightfully bitter chestnut honey that I drizzle over toasted and buttered (salted butter, of course) levain bread. If you should ever visit Lucca, the best place to buy Tuscan foodstuffs is Antica Bodega at 31, via Santa Lucia. The wine, of course, is excellent, inexpensive, and generously poured in restaurants and enotecas.

Tomorrow I’m taking my group to a villa in the mountains for a wine and olive oil tasting before we return to Lucca to shop for local specialties at Antica Bodega, including sharp, sheeps-milk Pecorino cheese and well-aged, syrupy Balsamic vinegar, Parmesano-Reggiano and olive oil.

And of course, lots more chocolate.

Related Chocolate Links

Chocolatiers and Chocolate Makers

Theo Chocolate

Valrhona Chocolate

Chocolate FAQs

John-Charles Rochoux

Regis Chocolate

Patrick Roger

La Maison du Chocolat

Gianduja and Gelato

Here I am in Torino, or Turin, if you’re familiar with the shroud.
Being on the road means that I’m in unfamiliar hotels with less-than-ideal access. When I attempted to change the thermostat in my hotel room, the digital display read ‘PARTY’. I don’t know what the ‘party’ mode is, but when I pressed the switch again nothing exciting happened.

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I’m leading a fabulous chocolate tour as I write. Torino is not on the tourist route. But it should be if you’re into chocolate. Gianduja is the star chocolate attraction here, a blend of milk chocolate and hazelnuts ground until smooth then formed into a paste. Hazelnuts are a specialty of the Piedmonte region and during wartime, cocoa beans were scarce so someone had the great idea to blend them with chocolate, and gianduja was born. (If you’ve had Nutella, you know what a terrific alliance chocolate and hazelnuts can be.)

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Once the gianduja paste is made, it’s formed into mounds that are molded into a flat peak, then wrapped in gold foil. I’m not much of a fan of milk chocolate, but when mixed with hazelnuts, it’s dreamy and truly delicious. The best gianduja that I’ve had was at A. Giordano (Piazza Carol Felice, 69.)

The other chocolate treats of Torino are Bicerin and gelato. Bicerin is great, and something that deserves to be better known outside of Torino. It’s a hot drink made with espresso, chocolate, and just enough whipped cream to make is smooth and creamy. It’s a fabulous combination, and each afternoon residents of Torino line up at bars for a warm Bicerin.

The gelato here is thick, gooey, and delicious. Like nothing you’ve had in your life. Flavors include caffe, gianduja (my favorite, of course), pistacio, tangy yogurt, and torrone loaded with almonds and sweetened with honey. Here’s my favorite gelato maker at the Caffe San Carlo (Piazza San Carlo, 156). He is perhaps my new favorite person in the world.
At least in Italy.

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Italians in Torino walks down the street eating gelato all hours of the day. Businessmen at lunchtime slurp cones while avoiding dripping on their Armani suits. Afternoons, swarms of teenagers with low-slung jeans send text-messages in between licks, and elderly women wander through the passages and window shop savoring gelato.

So I’m off tomorrow with my group for the mountains of Biella, where we’ll dine at an Agriturismo, a farm that serves meals made from ingredients only grown on the land. Then onward to Genoa, where we’ll stop along the way at Domori chocolate, one of the world’s great chocolate manufacturers.