Tuesday 12 January 2010

Vanilla-and-Mace-Scented Panna Cotta with Warm Blueberries

An enormous box of plump Ceres cherries and three punnets of dewy blueberries and luscious litchis arrived at my door on Saturday.  Hand-delivered, nogal, in a coolbox, by my new mate Trevor, who farms  blueberries in Stellenbosch and who also packages fruit for export and for top-end South African supermarkets. If this wasn't enough to make me emit hamster-like squeaks of delight, in walked Trevor's wife, Cindy, who is the Number One Fan of this blog, and whom I have never met in real life.  We fell into each other's arms like long-lost family friends (which, in a tangential way, we are).

Life is so curious. Some months ago I received a lovely chatty email from Cindy, a stranger, telling me that this blog had 'ruined' her first-ever holiday in Mauritius. Cindy, while reclining on the beach, picked up an issue of Femina (a South African women's magazine) and was intrigued by a feature piece about my blog. "I became quite desperate to see what the blog was all about," she told me in her email, "so I  toiled up to Reception and, once there, spend twenty Euros for the four hours' worth of Internet access on the hotel computer.  It was somewhat difficult for me to concentrate, after drinking two cocktails before 11am (then again, we were on the Serenity Plus All Inclusive Package!)

"So I phoned my 18-year-old son, whom we'd left back home in Stellenbosch, and asked him to check out the site and get back to me.

"Dumb thing to do. He got so inspired that he started cooking like a maniac and every night held a party for different friends to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

"I had left cash, and my credit card, with them in case of emergencies. Apparently cooking your recipes constituted an emergency.  I was dazed with the speed with which SMS alerts arrived from my bank notifying me of transactions.  I spent the week on tenterhooks and got home to find the following:
  • A sleeping son
  • A cross daughter (she put on weight licking out the bowls)
  • An almost empty fridge
  • An entirely empty booze cupboard and drinks fridge
  • 3 cross cats who had been ignored in the thrill of it all
  • My birthday  bottle of homemade Limoncello mysteriously gone missing
  • My credit card balancing on a huge pile of faked signature slips
  • A letter from my char that read " Hallo ther Ciny I is ver cross met eksra werk wat Nick se kosmaakery bring. [I am very cross about the extra work caused by Nick's food-making]. I take my hollidey neks week please 2 WEEK thankyou RACHEL".
"I suppose I should look on the bright side and beg you not to stop blogging because it's cheaper than buying Nick recipe books," she concluded.

I was delighted and flattered by Cindy's warm email (let's face it, blogging is vanity publishing) and we became virtual friends, via email and Facebook.  Shortly after that, Cindy sent her email to Femina magazine, and won a handsome suitcase when it became the star letter of the month.  Now here's the curious bit: my husband saw Cindy's name on an email in my inbox, and immediately recognised her name.  It turned out that they knew each other well, and were at school together at Bryanston High School during the late 1970s.

Anyway, it was lovely to meet her at last and for two days we have been feasting on fruit. I had no idea that blueberries were grown so extensively in South Africa - Trevor tells me that he sources blueberries from at least 18 different South African growers, and that the bulk of his own crop is exported to the United Kingdom.

I've only ever used blueberries in smoothies and muffins, so I promised Cindy that, to repay her in part for her  unswerving support of my blog, I'd come up with some blueberry recipes.

So, for starters, here is a delicate vanilla-and mace-flavoured panna cotta with blueberries.

Panna cotta so easy and quick to make that an 8-year-old could manage it, but it's vital to use just enough gelatine to achieve a light, trembling, barely set texture. I have used leaf gelatine in this recipe, which in my experience produces a more delicate jelly than powdered gelatine. You can - at last - buy leaf gelatine in South Africa (I bought mine in a Spar in Johannesburg; it's also available in specialist food stores) but if you can't lay your hands on some, you can use powder. I believe that, in general, two sheets of leaf gelatine are the equivalent of one teaspoon of gelatine powder (in which case this recipe would require 2 teaspoons, or 10 ml), but as I haven't tested this particular panna cotta using powder I can't vouch for the results.  I will make it again tomorrow using powder and give you a definitive measurement.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is that measurement: Use exactly 1½  tsp (7.5 ml) gelatine powder in place of the gelatine leaves. 

Vanilla-and-Mace-Scented Panna Cotta with Warm Blueberries
320 ml  full-cream milk
320 ml rich pouring cream
1 whole vanilla pod
1 blade of mace (or a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg)
100 ml white granulated sugar or caster sugar
4 leaves of gelatine (7 cm x 11 cm rectangles), or 1½  tsp (7.5 ml) gelatine powder
250 ml (1 cup) tepid water, for soaking

For the blueberries:
375 ml fresh or frozen blueberries
3 t (45 ml) white granulated sugar
the juice of half a lemon
4 T (60 ml) water

First make the panna cotta. Put the cream and the milk in a small saucepan. Split the vanilla pod in half, scrape out the seeds, and add the pod and seeds to the saucepan, along with the blade of mace. Bring gently to the boil, whisking now and then. Allow to simmer for a minute, then remove from the heat and lay a piece of clingfilm [saran wrap] directly over the surface of the liquid to prevent a skin forming.  Set aside for 15  minutes to allow the flavours to infuse.

In the meantime, fill a small bowl with a cup of  water and add the gelatine leaves, pressing down so that they are submerged. Set aside. Strain the cream/milk mixture through a sieve into a bowl and discard the flavourings.  Pour the mixture back into the pan, add the sugar and bring back to a gentle boil, stirring all the time to dissolve the sugar. After a minute remove from the heat. Scoop the gelatine leaves out of their water and squeeze out any excess water.  Put them into the hot cream and whisk lightly to dissolve the gelatine  Lightly oil 4 deep ramekin dishes or dariole moulds and pour the cream into them (you can also make this in a single dish or jelly mould).

Allow to cool on the counter for 20 minutes, and then refrigerate for at least 5 hours.

When you're ready to serve the dessert, put the blueberries in a sauce pan, add the sugar, lemon juice and water and bring gently to the boil, stirring frequently so that the sugar dissolves. As soon as the mixture begins to bubble, turn off the heat. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes.

Remove the panna cottas from the fridge. Fill a shallow bowl with very hot water and dip each dish in the water for 30 seconds (shorter if you're using metal moulds).  Use a sharp knife tip to loosen the sides of panna cottas and release the vacuum.  Now unmould them onto little flat plates. (The easiest way to do this is to place each little dish face-down on your - clean! -  hand and with the other hand smack its base sharply so that the jelly plops out onto your palm.)  Slide onto plates and serve with the warm blueberries.

Makes 5 small panna cottas. 
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Nina Timm said...

What an interesting story!!! The dessert has me speechless and also left me with a bit of nostalgia....I am from Ceres!!!

Koek! said...

I think that is the most beautifully styled dessert I've ever seen! Really love your blog - your food shots are just gorgeous.

Jane-Anne said...

Thank you so much for these comments. They have made my day.

Maryon said...

Now when I munch on a blueberry bought here in the UK I will know that it probably had its origins in sunny SA and grown by nice people. Nice thought.
I agree about the styling - your photos are top notch, beautiful, and so professional. They positivley inspire you to recreate your wonderful dishes.
And this from is a ex graphic designer.

Sarah Britten said...

I am now going to fantasise about this for the rest of the day, and I have case studies to write... sigh.

Jeanne said...

Oh what a beautiful dessert! I made pannacotta with posder gelatine & tried to guesstimate the amount from a recipe calling for leaf gelatine... not a roaring success as I clearly oversetimated the amount of gelatine powder needed!! Let's just say the dessert was... firm.

Love the 6-degrees-of-separation story. And funnily enough, that's how Nina and I became blog friends - her husband recognised me from my photo but could not place me, and in the end after much e-mail discussion it turned out he was friends with a guy I dated in Port Elizabeth in 1992 or thereabouts!

Bless the interwebs :)

Cindy said...

Isnt it brilliant? Jane-Anne is a treasure I am thrilled to have found.x Cindy

Jane-Anne said...

Now I am blushing beetroot, and it's not the heat. Thank you all for your support. Blogging can be a lonely business sometimes.