It’s quiet here in Southern Tuscany. Everyone is still on holiday and I’m still inventing excuses to steer clear of the office. One of the hardest parts of being a self-employed is staying focused. As I type this, I have a vase of sad half-dead roses behind me and they’re driving me nuts. I didn’t realize they had run out of water yesterday and with the extreme heat, I was too late to save them. Now they smell like unpleasant potpourri… so distracting!
Where was I? Ah, yes, panna cotta. Panna cotta is a Tuscan summer staple. Go to any food festival and you’ll find it on the dessert menu. Food festivals over here are called ‘sagre’. While these events started life as a way to share a traditional dish or ingredient, they’ve now become a bit of a fundraising free-for-all with every organisation and society/sports group cluttering up the summer calendar with their festivals.
Cue my expat tip: if you are in Tuscany and trying to decide which sagra to dine at and which to skip, look for the ones that are at least 20 years old. In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the Maremma wasn’t a tourist destination, so any food festival that traces its roots back more than two decades will have been started as something for the locals and not as a money making scheme. The other key is to look for food festivals that celebrate one ingredient. Ignore the “sagra d’estate”, “sagra dello sport” or “sagra del mare e monte” etc. These are just poor excuses for dodgy outdoor restaurants with terrible home cooks. But a “sagra del porcino” that’s in its 30th edition, for example, is going to have some stellar porcini mushroom dishes to sample.
Anyway, back to the pannacotta. I was at one such sagra with my mother-in-law and she mentioned that she’d never made a panna cotta at home. Neither had the cooks at the festival in my opinion, since my panna cotta tasted exactly like the ones you buy in the yoghurt section of the supermarket.
I’ve made my fair share of panna cottas at home. What’s not to love about a dessert that takes 5 minutes to prepare, can be made well in advance and knocks the socks off any dinner guest? It’s only Achilles heel? The gelatine. You have to be careful you don’t add too much/too little or you will end up with a brick/runny mess. I’ve had both happen to me many times, so my advice is follow this recipe to the letter.
I’ve pimped my easy panna cotta recipe with some lovely summer Italian additions. Figs from the garden and a shot of espresso coffee. The two don’t sound like they go together, but trust me, they’re the new Bert and Ernie. Think of it in gelato terms. How often do you order a gelato with one fruit-flavoured scoop and one scoop of say chocolate or pistachio? Giulio always orders one scoop coffee and one scoop fig and it used to drive me nuts, but then I came around to the flavour combination. It’s sweet and bitter – life on a cone or, in this case, a panna cotta cup!
If you don’t have figs on hand, thinly sliced plums or apricots would hit the spot just right in this panna cotta recipe too.
Coffee and fig panna cotta
For the espresso syrup
1/3 cup freshly brewed espresso
1/3 white sugar
2-3 figs, finely sliced
200ml double cream
100ml whole-fat milk
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 gelatine sheets, soaked in cold water for 10 minutes
To make the espresso syrup, heat the coffee and sugar in a small pan over low heat until thick, about 5 minutes. Line the base of 1-cup ramekins with your sliced figs. Pour the hot syrup over the top and chill until set. It’s very important that you don’t skip that last step. First time I made this, I did and my figs floated to the surface – cue tears.
When your syrup is so set you can flip the ramekin over your head and nothing comes out, make your panna cotta mix. Heat the cream, milk, sugar and vanilla pods over low heat until just boiling. Whisk in your gelatine and leave to cool until room temperature. If you pour the hot mix over your figs, you’ll melt the espresso caramel and end up with floating figs – cue tear, again.
When cool to the touch, pour the cream mixture over the figs and leave to set in the fridge for at least 3 hours.
When it comes time to serve, soften the caramel by dipping your ramekins in warm water until the panna cotta slides out in one piece. You might have to soak them for a few seconds if they’re not playing ball.
Serve with shot of espresso if you don’t feel like sleeping that night!