I Could Eat You With a Spoon

That affectionate phrase has always enchanted me, partly because I’ve never heard it lavished upon me personally. It implies some essential, personal deliciousness, innate sweetness, utter adorability; who wouldn’t want to be spoon-edible? (If you’re the person who rather aspires to be picked up and chomped on, sparerib-style, I might have something for you next week.)

Moreover, the things we want to eat with a spoon are soft, tender, yielding, or a little elusive–things we don’t want to miss a drop of, morsels deserving of the gentle utensil’s caress.

I began contemplating this, with the help of some Lambrusco, when a panna cotta arrived at my table last Thursday night at the Hostaria Savonarola in Ferrara. It occurred to me about halfway through this divine Piedmontese dessert of, literally, “cooked cream” that it was texturally rich but only subtly sweet, and that the pool of dark caramel on the plate had an earthy nuttiness about it and a faint, pleasant bitterness in the finish.

I could suddenly relate.

Tweak this recipe to your tastes. For a lighter panna cotta, use half cream and half milk, or half-and-half. You can reduce the vanilla flavoring to the barest suggestion, or add up to an extra 1/2 teaspoon, substitute almond extract, or add some orange or lemon zest, ground spices, etc.

Similarly, improvise the topping. At the Savonarola, the panna cotta was served with either a caramel sauce or frutti di bosco (”fruit of the woods”; i.e., mixed berries), which may be simply tumbled around the plate or made into a coulis. To do this, combine a pint of mixed berries (washed, stemmed, hulled, and halved or quartered if large, as in strawberries) with a few tablespoons sugar and 3 or 4 tablespoons water in a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, blitz in the food processor to your desired texture, and chill until needed.

When I made this panna cotta at home, I served it with a drizzle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, a dark, sweet balsamic vinegar that’s been aged at least ten years (so expensive, worth every penny, and possibly my favorite of the toppings).

Panna Cotta
Serves 4.
2 cups cream
Scant 1/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (use 1 1/2 teaspoons if you don’t have a vanilla bean)
2 sheets leaf gelatin or 1/2 packet (1 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin or the same quantity of agar-agar (the vegetarian alternative)

Combine the cream and sugar in a small saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into this mixture, then drop in the whole bean. Bring the mixture to a simmer (don’t let it boil) over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, submerge the gelatin leaves in a bowl of cold water until softened, about five minutes. Remove them and squeeze out any excess water. Add the sheets to the hot milk mixture and stir until fully dissolved. If using powdered gelatin or agar-agar, reserve a few tablespoons of cold cream in a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over, and let soften about five minutes. Whisk the gelatin mixture into the hot cream until fully dissolved.

Let stand 5-10 minutes. Divide the mixture among four ramekins, goblets, or small bowls. Chill, covered, until set, at least four hours or overnight.

Unmold panna cotta if desired by running a thin blade around the inside of the bowl or ramekin, then dip the bottom of the mold into a pan of hot water to loosen. Invert, drizzle with sauce or garnish and serve.

Caramel Sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

Place the sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan and cook over low heat, swirling the pan gently if necessary, until sugar dissolves. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil; boil without stirring (remove sugar crystals from the sides of the pan by brushing them down with a wet pastry brush) until sugar is thick and deep amber in color, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and, very carefully (the hot sugar may splatter) add the other 1/4 cup water. Return to medium heat, stirring to dissolve any hardened caramel.

Let cool to comfortable warmth before pouring over panna cotta. Caramel may be made ahead and stored covered in the fridge up to a week; rewarm over gentle heat as needed.

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