Custard's Last Stand

Story and photos by Brandon Matzek

Silky chocolate custard adorned with a cloud of sweet espresso and a flurry of shaved bittersweet chocolate, panna cotta (Italian for "cooked cream") is one of my favorite desserts to prepare for a special home cooked dinner - especially for Valentine's Day.

This simple custard is made by thickening chocolate cream with gelatin, a process that requires just 15 minutes of prep time. A three-hour chill is also needed, so be sure to plan ahead.

All seemingly fancy deserts require one or two seemingly fancy accompaniments. This panna cotta is finished with freshly made whipped cream laced with brown sugar, vanilla and espresso. To add texture and reinforce the chocolate flavor, I vigorously run a leftover nub of chocolate against a sharp rasp, producing flecks of bittersweet beauty.

Prepare this dessert on February 14 and you'll surely gain some bonus points with your significant other with minimal effort in the kitchen.


Chocolate Panna Cotta

Ingredients

Flavorless oil (such as vegetable or canola)
1 3/4  cups heavy cream
1 1/4 teaspoons powdered gelatin
2 tablespoons white sugar
Kosher salt
2 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (such as Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, or Ghirardelli), plus more for shaving

Process

Prepare the equipment. Lightly grease four 5-ounce ramekins (or similar oven-proof vessels) with flavorless oil. Set ramekins in a baking dish.

Soften the gelatin. In a small heatproof bowl, combine 1/4 cup heavy cream and gelatin, whisking to combine. Let stand until softened (about 10 minutes). Place small bowl inside a larger bowl with hot tap water at the bottom. You want enough water to come about 1/2 way up the sides of the small bowl. Carefully whisk until the gelatin is dissolved and the mixture becomes liquid again.

Cook the cream. Meanwhile, combine remaining 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, sugar and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. You'll know the mixture has come to the right temperature when you see steam rising from the surface and small bubbles forming around the edges. Remove the saucepan from the heat, add the chocolate and whisk until smooth.

Combine. Using a spatula, scrape the gelatin mixture into the chocolate mixture and stir until well combined. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup or bowl with a pour spout. Divide the mixture evenly between the prepared ramekins. Let cool to room temperature, cover loosely with plastic wrap and transfer to the refrigerator to chill for at least 3 hours.

Serve. To serve, rotate the bottom of each ramekin under hot, tap water for 5 seconds, and then carefully run a small knife around the edges of the panna cotta. Invert onto a chilled serving plate, then top with a dollop of espresso whipped cream (recipe below) and chocolate shavings.


Espresso Whipped Cream

Ingredients

1 cup chilled heavy cream
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

Process

Whip the cream. Add heavy cream, light brown sugar, vanilla extract and espresso powder to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. If you don't have a stand mixer, you can also whip the cream with a whisk or hand mixer. Beat until soft peaks form. To test for soft peaks, simply pull the whisk from the whipped cream and turn it so the whisk end is facing up. The peak on tip of the whisk should fall over on itself.

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