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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Best Laid Plans

Having a reputation for some competence in the kitchen often brings in requests from friends seeking out a new recipe, particularly for a special occasion. In fact, as much as I love such requests, I also fret over them. Oh the (self-imposed) pressure!

Preparing a meal at its basic level is an act of sustainment and nourishment, we eat to live. But at its grandest, preparing a meal is theatre, a labour of love and an expression of passion. Whether it is a mother preparing lunch for her children, or a three-star Michelin chef dazzling his diners, food is a vehicle to communicate our affection, our joy, our pride.

This week, a friend of mine, Ralph, asked me for a recipe for ceviche in anticipation for a date he is having later on in the week. Since my return from Mexico, I had been thinking about re-creating a ceviche dish I had and so his request for the appetizer was well-timed. I had been thinking about ceviche shooters: soft pillowy scallops, dotted with tiny cumin seeds and a fine dice of red peppers, swimming in tangy mouth-watering broth of lime juice, salt and the slightest hint of tequila. However, I couldn't seem to get my hands on sushi-grade seafood this weekend which I think is a must not only from a taste standpoint but also from a food safety perspective. So, instead of something for the beginning of the meal, I thought I might share with Ralph a little something for the end of the meal.

This is the easiest dessert I know and an absolutely lovely way to end a nice supper. It is a dessert we eat often in my home and although light tasting, it is supremely satisfying.

Panna cotta (meaning "cooked cream" in Italian) is an elegant dessert which is super easy to make and takes fifteen minutes of cooking time. In its traditional form, it is as pale as the fresh fallen snow, made generally with cream and milk. It is delicate and smooth, unadulterated by strong flavours or colourings. In this version, I have looked to south-east Asian agar* desserts for inspiration. By contrast, agar desserts from south-east Asia are colourful sturdy gelatinous squares intensely flavoured by pandan, and coconut. It is usually served alongside a plate of sliced tropical fruit. While there is a similar flavour here, I like gelatinous desserts that quiver, wobble and yield to slightest pressure under a spoon. This is not a dessert that could be used as a paper weight, it is so light it almost floats.

We normally have agar* at home for when I make these light smooth mango puddings (a staple in Dim Sum houses everywhere) using a recipe very similar to the one below. I created this dessert when I didn't have mango puree, but a quick forage through my pantry yielded velvety coconut milk, creamy evaporated milk and sticky brown sugar. Of course, it's just a simple pudding but give it a fashionable name like panna cotta and your guests will be impressed.

The texture of this panna cotta is as it would be cooked in the traditional way: wobbly, delicate and light. It is the palest mocha and is deliciously fragrant.

Brown Sugar and Coconut Panna Cotta
Serves 4

1 500ml can light coconut milk
1 300ml can low-fat evaporated milk
1 1/2 tsp of agar powder* (also called agar agar, or kanten)
1/2 c brown sugar (packed)
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Measure and pour ingredients into a tall saucepan, except for about 1/2c of the milk and the agar powder.
2. In a tall saucepan, simmer coconut milk, evaporated milk, sugar and vanilla.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk the remaining milk and agar together until fully incorporated and there are no lumps.
4. Add mixture to the sauce pan, whisk quickly to incorporate and simmer until warm. There should be no lumpy gelantinous bits. (If there are, you can strain them out before you pour into ramekins. Important: Do not allow this mixture to boil otherwise it will split and will not be creamy and opaque in appearance.
5. Prepare four ramekins by rinsing them in cold water and place the ramekins underneath a towel. Do not wipe the inside of the ramekins dry. The cold water will help in the removal of the panna cottas.
6. Pour mixture into a jug. (I use a 4c glass measuring cup which helps me measure out an equal amount into the ramekins.) Gently pour the mixture into the individual ramekins, allow to cool slightly, then cover lightly with cling wrap allowing steam to escape. When cool, refrigerate them until ready to serve.
7. To serve, warm a butter knife under hot water and gently slip along the edges of the ramekin. Place the plate on top of the ramekin and ever so carefully, invert the plate so that the bottom of the ramekin is facing upward. Carefully wiggle the ramekin away from the panna cotta. Dust the panna cotta with cinnamon, and chocolate shavings. Use the lightest touch. Alternatively, you can serve the panna cottas in the ramekins. Serve immediately.

*I can't find agar - what do I do?
Agar is a natural seaweed-derived gelling agent. It is a great alternative to gelatine for vegans. However, unlike gelatine, agar can also set at room temperature. Agar may be found in a health food stores or Asian grocery stores. If you can't find agar and you're not a vegan, use gelatin instead. It can be found in the dessert section of grocery stores (beside the Jell-o), baking supply stores or health food stores.


GiGi said...

hi there,
nice to know u from Lily Wai Sek Hong, my all time favorite blogger:) will drop by to visit your blog from now on...keep up the good work ya..*LOL*

GiGi said...

oh i hv some good blog to introduce to you too, check it out:




Hungry Gal said...

@ gigi

Thanks so much for your comments! I love them. Yes - do please feel free to drop by and a sincere thank you for your support!

Thanks for the food blogs - I will definitely check them out!! :)

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