As much as I love dessert (and I LOVE dessert), I often skip it at Italian restaurants. The classic, but tired, offerings tend to be the same nearly everywhere: tiramisu, panna cotta, biscotti with gelato. Zzz…. Boring, especially when there are so many great Italian desserts out there.
I understand the appeal of panna cotta. It’s easy to make; it can be made ahead; and it’s a good alternative for a cold dessert. But I don’t often make it because what first comes to mind is “milk jello.” I know, right? Kinda gross. However, my interest was piqued over a year ago when I read chef Chris Cosentino’s recipe, Bay Leaf Panna Cotta with Strawberries, Balsamic and Black Pepper in Food & Wine. I’m a fan of mixing traditionally savory herbs and spices into desserts and this fit the profile.
Because other desserts climbed to the top of the “must make” pile, I admit I forgot all about the panna cotta. But I recently bought a Laurel Bay Leaf bush and with easy access to fresh bay leaves and warmer weather, panna cotta floated back into my head and I remembered the recipe.
I stopped in my tracks though, when I saw it used over three cups of heavy cream. Trust me, not even a marathon runner needs to have a cup of heavy cream for dessert! This recipe needed an overhaul. I switched the cream to whole milk (still completely satisfying!); modified a few ingredients and portions; and streamlined the process steps. What’s left is a haunting flavor from fresh bay leaves and the sweet/savory intrigue of the strawberry-balsamic-pepper combination. This is a panna cotta I’d proudly put on a menu.
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Bay Leaf Panna Cotta with Strawberries, Black Pepper and Balsamic
- 4 cups whole milk, divided
- 1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon unflavored powdered gelatin
- For my vegetarian friends, you may use 2/3 cup cornstarch in place of the gelatin, but note the differing process steps, below.
- 3/4 cup sugar, plus one tablespoon for later use
- 3 fresh bay leaves (available at most supermarkets in the fresh herb section)
- 1 organic lemon (for 3-5 strips of lemon peel and the juice)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
- 1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered or sliced
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon aged balsamic (or regular)*
- In a small bowl, pour 1/2 cup of milk over gelatin, stir and let sit to soften the gelatin.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining milk, 3/4 cup sugar, bay leaves, lemon peels (use a vegetable peel to remove just the yellow peel, leaving as much white pith behind).
- Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.
- Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 10 minutes.
- Uncover and remove bay leaves and lemon peels.
- Add the vanilla and the softened gelatin and whisk into the milk mixture.
- Evenly pour the panna cotta mixture into dessert cups or wine glasses (mix and match, be creative!).
- Cover in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator until set, at least 4 hours.
- Wash, hull, and quarter small or slice large strawberries.
- In a small bowl, gently stir the strawberries with 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon juice (from the lemon you peeled earlier) and the balsamic vinegar. Let mixture rest for 10 minutes.
- Drain any excess liquid from the berry mixture and add berries to the top of each panna cotta.
NOTE: If using cornstarch, add it along with the other ingredients, above. Whisk briskly to break up any lumps. When it begins to boil, whisk vigorously for one minute. This will have the consistency more like a pastry cream or pudding as opposed to traditional panna cotta made with gelatin (If making the regular recipe with gelatin, add it later in step 6. You cannot boil gelatin or it won’t gel.)
The panna cotta may be made one day in advanced. Keep covered and refrigerated. Berries should be added right before serving.
*Note: The original recipe called for “aged” balsamic which is naturally sweeter, thick and syrupy (and very expensive). If you have regular balsamic, use that, but drain the strawberry mixture of any excess vinegar before putting on top of the panna cotta.