The Daring Bakers are at it again and it’s more of the sweet stuff. Much as I love doing the challenges which keep adding to my steadily improving baking skills, every time a challenge is posted at the forums I keep hoping that it would be something savoury. So when I saw we would be making Panna Cotta and Florentine Cookies, I wasn’t very excited to be baking something sweet again.
On the other hand, I had made Panna Cotta a couple times in the past but was never really satisfied with my results. Some part of the dissatisfaction was from not getting the substitution of gelatine with agar correct. So this month’s challenge turned out to be the opportunity to see if I could make a successful Panna Cotta with agar. I had also never made Florentine cookies before.
That’s right, the February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies.
I had some rather ambitious and exciting ideas about presenting my Panna Cotta but I won’t go into all that since I never got around to executing my ideas. I just don’t know where this month has gone, and it is 2 or 3 days shorter than the other month at that! I know I was reading the challenge on the 1st or the 2nd and the next thing I know is that I got up on the 25th and realised that I had not even read through the challenge properly. This gave me precisely whichever part I could spare of 1 1/2 days to read and assimilate the challenge, get creative in its execution, photograph it while the sun was still doing its thing, and then write up a decent post.
Luckily I didn’t find this month’s challenge much of one. I managed to make the Florentine cookies while cooking breakfast, and if you know Indians you know we take our breakfast very seriously. Posting within the deadline was what proved to be more of a challenge!
Panna Cotta, which translates as “cooked cream” in Italian, probably originated in the Piedmont region of Italy. It is an eggless, custard-like dessert made with cream, milk, sugar and flavouring (usually vanilla) which uses gelatine as the setting agent. Gelatine can be substituted by agar agar, if like us, you don’t use gelatine. Quite easy to make, Panna Cotta can be served in glasses/ ramekins or as a moulded dessert.
Since Panna Cotta itself is a very simple dessert, the possibility of adding flavours to it or “dressing it up” with sauces, gelee, or fresh fruit are endless. Panna Cotta is usually served as a dessert but it can be made savoury (and lighter, with less cream) and be served as an appetiser. The perfect pannacotta should be light and creamy, able to just hold its shape when unmoulded but not be as firm or have a jelly-like consistency.
Florentines are also Italian and are thin, crunchy cookies made from dough that contain nuts and candied fruit held together honey and sugar. Once they’re baked, they’re dipped in or drizzled with melted dark chocolate. Florentines make wonderful sandwich cookies but can also be baked as bars. While there are claims that Florentines originated in Florence and even in Austria, one version claims they were born in Paris in King Louis XIV’s kitchens at the Palace of Versailles. Apparently, Florentine cookies were created by his pastry chefs for the Medici family of Florence.
Our hostess for this month required us to make Panna Cotta and Florentine cookies from the recipe provided but we were free to tweak the recipes to accommodate whatever flavour combinations we wanted to experiment with. I had never heard of Florentine cookies before this challenge and have never eaten a Panna Cotta that I haven’t made.
You can find the original challenge with detailed recipe here.
Cardamom Flavoured White Chocolate & Pistachio Panna Cotta With A Tangy Saffron Syrup
A lot of combinations went through my mind while trying to decide the flavours I wanted in my Panna Cotta. Vanilla was a bit predictable and I’ve been seeing too much of chocolate (the dark kind) recently. Yes, I’ve just discovered there can be something like too much chocolate, and hopefully this will be a temporary thing.
I wanted some truly Indian flavours and finally settled on making a White Chocolate & Pistachio Panna Cotta flavoured with cardamom. I thought of using fruit, but the only Indian fruit that would truly go with this is mango and it’s not the season for that yet. Rather than make a gelee, I decided to make thick saffron syrup to serve with the Panna Cotta.
I started with the given recipe and changed it to my requirements. Since white chocolate is sweet, I cut down the sugar by half. I substituted agar agar for the gelatine since we are vegetarian and used cardamom. I also used less cream as there was chocolate. Here’s my Panna Cotta recipe.
Tangy Saffron SyrupCardamom Flavoured White Chocolate & Pistachio Panna Cotta
(Adapted from Bon Appetit)
1 cup milk (I used 2%)
1 1/2 tbsp agar agar flakes
400ml cream (25% fat)
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup finely chopped white chocolate
1/4 cup unsalted, shelled pistachios
1/2 tsp powdered cardamom
Run the pistachios in your blender and powder them as fine as you can without turning it into clumps or a paste. My pistachios were slightly “grainy”, but I like them that way. A good way to grind them as fine as possible is to keep the pistachios in the freezer and then grind them straight from the freezer.
Warm the milk in a small sauce pan. Add the agar flakes and keep stirring until the agar dissolves completely. If you find any solid agar in the milk as it cools, strain out the agar using a fine sieve and then press as much of the agar as you can through the sieve using a spoon. You need to do this while the milk is still reasonably hot. Place the saucepan back on medium heat and whisk well, and you should have a smooth milk-agar mixture which will thicken as it cools.
Put the cream and sugar in a slightly larger sauce pan, and over medium heat, slowly bring to a low boil. Stir lightly, to dissolve the sugar. Take the pan off the heat and add the white chocolate and whisk until it dissolves completely. If the chocolate cream mixture starts cooling and the chocolate doesn’t dissolve properly, put the pan back on medium heat and stir till it warms up, but do not let it boil. Keep whisking till it is smooth.
Put the pan back on the stove, and on medium heat again. Add the milk thickened with agar to it, the cardamom and the powdered pistachios as well. Whisk everything together till blended and take it off the heat.
Keep stirring lightly, on and off till it reaches room temperature, to prevent a skin from forming on the top. Pour the Panna Cotta into lightly buttered ramekins or into glasses. Cover and chill for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight.
This recipe makes 6 servings.
Panna Cotta is a dessert and adding a sugar syrup would only make it sweeter, which really isn’t how a dessert should be. My Panna Cotta wasn’t very sweet but I didn’t want it overpowered by sugar so I decided to add a bit of lemon juice to the saffron syrup to balance it out.
Do allow the saffron to sit in the syrup for about an hour if you can. Really good quality saffron takes time to release its colour and flavour. In fact, the time it takes to release colour/ flavour is one indication of the quality of saffron.
You can serve this syrup with a moulded Panna Cotta or else add it to the top of chilled Panna Cotta in glass, about 5 minutes before serving. The cold Panna Cotta will make the saffron syrup thicken instantly and make it look like a layer of gelee. Just make sure your syrup is at room temperature or it will melt your Panna Cotta.
Nestle Florentine CookiesTangy Saffron Syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
About 16 strands of good saffron
10 tbsps water
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
Put the sugar, water and lemon juice in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer until it has reduced to a slightly thick syrup. When you lift your spoon from the syrup the sugar should drip off leaving the beginnings of a “thread”. Remember it will thicken further once it has cooled.
Add the saffron strands to the syrup and leave it all to infuse for 30 minutes or more. You can strain out the saffron threads if you like. I left mine in because I liked the texture and the way they look in the syrup. Pour into a small jug. If it becomes too thick on cooling add a tsp of water and warm the syrup, while mixing well.
This recipe should be enough to serve with the Panna Cotta above.
These butter-rich cookies should be thin, crunchy and lacy in appearance. When I made them I didn’t realise that to get the lace-like appearance, I should dropped the dough onto hot cookie sheets! The hot cookie sheets would have melted the butter in the dough causing them to spread out and give them the characteristic appearance.
These Florentine cookies are also a bit on the sweet side so I reduced the sugar a bit. Rather than go to the trouble of melting chocolate to dip them in or drizzle over them, I just pressed in some semi-sweet mini-chocolate chips into the flattened cookies before baking them. Oh, and I halved the given recipe which still gave me 20 or so Florentines.
(Adapted from Nestle)
75 gm butter
1 cup rolled oats, run in the blender a couple of times (or quick oats)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 cup honey
1/8 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
3/4 cup semi-sweet mini chocolate chips
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and take it off the heat. Add all the remaining ingredients except the chocolate chips, and mix well. Drop about 1/2 tbsp (or 1 tbsp for larger Florentines) of the dough on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet* (See note).
Flatten the cookies with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle some chocolate chips on the flattened dough and press down lightly with a spoon. Bake at 190C (375F) for about 8 minutes or until the cookies start turning golden brown at the edges.
Let the cookies cool completely on the parchment and then slowly loosen them. Store them in airtight containers. This recipe makes about 20 small Florentines.
*Note: My Florentine cookies were not lacy and as thin as they should have been. They were thin enough and crunchy. I understand that one way to make thin lacy looking Florentines is to drop the cookie dough on hot cookie sheets which makes the butter melt and the dough spread out.
As I mentioned before, making Panna Cotta and the Florentine cookies wasn’t a challenge really, but I’m thankful for that this time. We all liked the Panna Cotta, and though my daughter had slightly mixed feelings about the flavours, my mother thoroughly enjoyed it. It was creamy of course (well there was chocolate and loads of cream in it), without having a jelly-like feel and I really liked the little bits of pistachio that came through. The tang in the saffron syrup balanced out the sweet somewhat.
Thinking back, I think I would prefer a lighter Panna Cotta and shall definitely explore using yogurt or other options to reduce the cream.
It was the Florentine cookies that really stole the show. Even though they didn’t have the lace-like finish, everyone was raving about the cookies including my daughter who is not really very fond of oats. So I know I’ll be baking these and other Florentines again.