Introduction: La Bella Panna Cotta

About: My mid-April 2013 resolution was to start posting instructables. Let's see how I do with that!
Panna cotta (cooked cream) is a lovely, cooling Italian dessert that shares many of the delights of ice cream and much of the charm of whipped cream. This Instructable demonstrates how to make panna cotta and a balsamic/raisin topping that brings out the flavor in fresh strawberries, which are served on the side. The rich flavor of the balsamic vinegar reduction complements strawberries and its acid tones down the dessert's sweetness and the dense mouth-feel of the cream. Following a good meal with great company, it's an excellent way to end a happy day's dining. 

Panna cotta is a custard, but while many custards thicken around the egg protein albumen, this one thickens around the gelatin protein collagen. Like other gelatin containing desserts, it should be prepared several (at least 4) hours ahead of time so that it can fully thicken.

Ingredients-- the panna cotta itself

3 cups heavy cream
1 cup half and half
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (measure from contents of 1 packet)
1/4 cup cold water
a pinch of salt (about 1/3 of a 1/8 teaspoon measure, if you desperately need to be told a specific amount)

Ingredients-- balsamic reduction topping

1 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons raisins
1 cup boiling water
+ fresh strawberries 

Step 1: Start Making the Cooked Cream

Lightly oil 8 ramekins with a neutral oil (for instance, vegetable oil. Don't use something that will bring flavors you don't want in a dessert!)

Measure 1/4 cup of water into a broad bowl (I used a cereal bowl, see picture) then sprinkle gelatin on its surface and let sit.

In a large sturdy pan, mix cream, half and half, salt, and sugar. Stirring, bring to a simmer over moderate heat.

Step 2: Finish Cooking the Cream

Cream and other milk products can boil over quickly. To avoid this problem, use moderate rather than high heat settings on your range and stir constantly as the mix begins to bubble. 

When the cream stays at a rapid simmer as you stir, remove from heat. In the picture, the cream is nearly there, but stirring is still stopping the bubbling in part of the pot.

Add vanilla extract, then add the gelatin, which will have taken up the cold water it was sitting in.  
Stir or whisk until gelatin dissolves.

Pour into ramekins and move to refrigerator after letting them cool for ~30 minutes. Chill for 4 or more hours.

Step 3: Prepare the Topping

Balsamic reduction
1 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons raisins
1 cup boiling water

simmer balsamic vinegar until syrupy, with the volume reduced by more than half. In the picture, you can see the thickened and reduced final product. When I started, the balsamic vinegar more than covered he bottom of the pan and moved freely like water.

Plump the raisins: in a shallow bowl, add boiling water until raisins are just covered. Set aside and allow to sit.

When the balsamic vinegar has been reduced, drain water from plumped raisins and press with a paper towel to remove remaining surface water. Add plumped raisins to reduced balsamic and allow to cool.

Step 4: Plate

Loosen panna cotta by carefully running a knife around the inside wall of each ramekin.
Warm the ramekins by carefully setting them in a baking pan about 1/3 full of very hot water. Make sure that the water does not rise above the tops of the ramekins as you add more to the pan. Let sit for 3 minutes, then dry the outside of the ramekins and upend one ramekin onto each of eight dessert plates.

Top with balsamic reduction and raisins.

Garnish generously with fresh strawberries and serve immediately.

Italian Food Contest

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