When ripe, strawberries should have a strong sweet aroma, rich coloring, and a sweetness that virtually melts in your mouth. I like to look for smaller berries, as they tend to be sweeter than the large ones. A hint for looking for a well ripened strawberry - look to see if the flesh is red all the way to stem's base. Many times when you purchase strawberries in the supermarkets out of season, they will be mostly white at the top. This is a sign that the berry likely doesn't have much flavor and will be white through most of the inside.
Nutrition: Rich in Vitamin C, dietary fiber and manganese. Also a good source of potassium and folate.
Season: Depending on climate/region, harvest can begin as early as March and go into November.
My love of panna cotta started at a friend's restaurant in Austin with a delicious concoction of vanilla panna cotta, sliced red grapes, and basil caviar. It's probably the happiest I've ever felt after eating dessert, which pretty much means I was fully elated because eating dessert already equals happiness. My love for strawberry milk goes back to childhood sleepovers at my grandmother's house with my cousin Emily. My grandmother was a pretty healthy eater - fresh fruit, whole wheat toast, bran cereal, vegetables from her backyard garden - but she enjoyed spoiling her grandchildren with Nesquik's strawberry milk. I don't think I'll ever forget the distinct yellow tin it came in and the way the pink powder floated through the air as we scooped it into our glasses of milk. When I set out to make this panna cotta, I wanted to feel both of those happy memories in the finished product, but with a more...natural flavor.
Panna cotta seems to have a reputation of being difficult to make which is why I had never attempted it before. The reality is, you can make it into a fussy dessert, but it doesn't have to be. This recipe makes it simple and doesn't require any fancy molds (therefore, no fear of unmolding and turning elation into depression). It's the perfect cool dessert for a warm day that won't quickly melt on you or require special equipment. And the best part is you can easily make it a few days in advance! Just be sure to cover the ramekins with plastic wrap or the like once the panna cotta has set (can be stored for up to a week).
You should heed one warning - do NOT use Horizon brand organic milk or cream. For some reason, it causes the panna cotta to turn gritty (which is definitely depressing). I found the best results from Organic Valley. Yes, it's more expensive. Yes, it tastes better. So, yes, it's worth the few extra bucks. And overall, this dessert is pretty economical. Also, finding the sweetest strawberries is always best, but if you need save a couple of dollars to buy the good milk, go for it.
Strawberry Milk Panna Cotta
- 1 lb strawberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1/2 - 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- Generous pinch of salt
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1/4 cold water
- 3 tsp gelatin (about 1 1/2 packets)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp almond extract
- 2 cups sliced strawberries
- A tablespoon sugar
In a medium sauce pan, combine strawberries, sugar, and salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Let the strawberries bubble for 20-30 minutes, stirring frequently, allowing the juices the thicken and the flavor to concentrate. When the fruit is very soft, turn off the heat. Use a stick blender, or carefully transfer to a regular blender, to fully puree the berries. Return the pureed mixture to low heat and stir in the whole milk.
As the milk is heating, add the water to a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the surface. Set aside to hydrate. When the milk mixture is hot to the touch or 120' F, whisk in the hydrated gelatin until fully dissolved. Remove from the heat.
Set a fine mesh sieve over a mixing bowl and strain the strawberry milk through it. This will remove most seeds and any potential clumps of gelatin. Stir in the heavy cream, vanilla and almond. Pour 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the mixture into glass ramekins or small glasses. Place in the fridge to chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.
Just before you are ready to serve, toss strawberry slices with sugar and let the berries macerate for 10 minutes or longer. Spoon over the top of each panna cotta and serve.
Yield: 6-8 servings