This is a story in two parts. One is about a kind of odd seasonal fruit that looks like bright red celery. It’s incredibly tart, I’d even venture to say inedible, when raw and has toxic leaves. The second part is about a strange little custard, set with gelatin that someone once described to me as “milk jell-o”. Now who in their right minds reads either of those sentences and thinks “Delicious! Sign me up!” Well, I do because together these two oddballs are quite delightful.
Part One: rhubarb. When I see the large piles finally emerge at the farmers market I feel obligated to buy a few of the neat little bundles. After the asparagus makes it’s flashy entrance and just before the first of the strawberries begin to appear, there’s rhubarb, a clear sign that things are looking up. I like rhubarb, I really do, but after the first pie of the season I stare at the massive pile I’ve enthusiastically purchased with a blank look. What now?
Oh sure I’ve made pies – straight up rhubarb, strawberry rhubarb, rhubarb custard. I’ve made rhubarb jams and rhubarb sorbets. I even made rhubarb cocktails. And they were all good. Very, very good. But truth is, after I burn threw the standards, my favorite way with rhubarb is very simply roasted, with sugar and maybe a little spice of some sort – a cinnamon stick, a vanilla bean or maybe a few whole cloves. A hot oven works it’s magic, tempering the tartness, caramelizing the sugar just so and rendering the stalks tender but still with a bit of texture. I despise rhubarb that’s been cooked to the point of an unappetizing mush. What is the point of that?
Roasted rhubarb is delicious on it’s own but really shines spooned on top of something creamy. Ice cream, rice pudding or your morning oatmeal are good places to start. But I am particularly fond of it on panna cotta, especially one with a touch of buttermilk. Which brings it to the next part of the story.
Part Two: panna cotta. Technically “cooked milk”, panna cotta is a sort of custard that is set with a small amount of gelatin, just enough to set the creamy mixture. It’s cool and creamy and when made correctly, absolutely heavenly. And here’s where many recipes go wrong – too much gelatin and you have a firm, disgusting jell-o like blob. No. No, no, no. That is just wrong. The gelatin should be minimal and the finished panna cotta should be silky and tender. An Italian chef once described it to me as having the slightest, most tender jiggle, like the inner thigh of a soft woman. “Oui Chef!” I dutifully replied than ran away to hide in dry storage.
And the best recipe out there belongs to Pastry Chef Claudia Fleming, formerly of Gramercy Tavern and currently owner/chef/proprietor with her husband of North Fork Table and Inn. I love her. Amazon tells me that I’ve owned her book, The Last Course, for 10 years and its one I turn to frequently. As is this recipe. Simply put, it’s the perfect summer dessert: it comes together easily with just a few readily available ingredients, doesn’t heat up the kitchen in the dog days of summer and is delightfully cooling and refreshing.
Any type of fruit – roasted, macerated or just sprinkled with sugar and a little booze – are perfect accompaniments. (Strawberries in hibiscus syrup are especially nice, I must say.) And let me tell you this is especially delicious after a spicy meal – the perfect finish. Work this one into your repertoire. I promise you’ll come back to it again and again.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE. This one is a delightful surprise – it’s really easy to put together but plate it right and you’ve got what looks like a 4-star dessert. No tricks – it really is a 4-star dessert. I had the great fortune to make this same panna cotta with Ms. Fleming for a Tom Colicchio tribute dinner a few years ago. She served it with a rosewater meringue disc, lightly sugared strawberries and candied pistachios. It was beautiful and 400 guests licked their plates clean. Enough said.
On this blog two years ago: Late Spring Pea Soup
On this blog one year ago: Pear Frangipane Tarts
Other rhubarb recipes on this blog: Rhubarb Custard Pie, Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble Pie, Rhubarb Syrup & Hipster Cocktails
BUTTERMILK PANNA COTTA WITH VANILLA CARDAMOM ROASTED RHUBARB – panna cotta recipe from The Last Course
for the roasted rhubarb:
1 pound rhubarb
6 whole green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 vanilla bean, split
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
for the buttermilk panna cotta:
1 ½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 Tablespoon cold water
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
7 Tablespoons sugar
½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or ½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste)
1 ¾ cups buttermilk
- For the rhubarb: Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 400°F.
- Cut the rhubarb into 1” pieces and place in a heavy roasting pan in a single layer.
- Sprinkle with the sugar and toss gently to coat.
- Nestle in the split vanilla bean and cardamom pods and dot with the butter.
- Place in the oven and roasted until tender but not collapsed, about 30 minutes. Let cool then refrigerate until needed.
- For the panna cotta: Soften gelatin in the water in a medium bowl for about 5 minutes.
- Place the cream and sugar into a small saucepan and scrape seeds from vanilla pod into pan and throw in the pod (or stir in the vanilla bean paste.)
- Heat cream over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves, 3–5 minutes, then stir into bowl with gelatin.
- Stir in buttermilk, then strain into another bowl or measuring cup with a pour spout.
- Divide custard between six 4 ounce ramekins and refrigerate until set, about 3 hours.
- To unmold, run a sharp paring knife between the panna cotta and the ramekin then dip the ramekins into a dish of hot water, wipe dry and invert onto plates. You may need to gently jiggle the ramekin to release. If it’s still stuck, gently pry the knife on the side of the custard to get a little air underneath the bottom of the custard and break the seal. It should release easily at this point.
- Garnish with the roasted rhubarb and serve.