In some ways, I can be awfully predictable. I always squee over fat little animals (both the real kind and the drawn/sculpted kind). I always call dibs on the blue piece when I'm playing Trivial Pursuit. And I always, always order panna cotta if it's on the dessert menu (unless there's creme brulee, in which case I'll play eenie meenie to figure out which one I want).
I guess I just have a soft spot for puddings, panna cottas, creme brulees, pots de cremes, and thick, creamy, custardy sorts of desserts in general. The problem is that their soft and creamy texture is like a pair of well-worn flannel pyjamas - soothing and comfortable, but better suited to a cozy family occasion than a knock-his-socks-off hot date. In other words, it's... well... kind of boring.
This recipe, on the other hand, is most certainly not boring. Sure, it's got the cozy familiarity of a panna cotta, but it's also playful and sophisticated, with flecks with black pepper and a border of gleaming red strawberries drizzled with dark balsamic syrup. If regular panna cotta is flannel pyjamas, then this is a little black dress with a pair of killer red stilettos.
The combination of flavours might seem a little unusual, considering we usually treat pepper and balsamic vinegar as savoury ingredients, but Italians have been serving strawberries this way for a long time. The sweet-and-sour tang of the vinegar and the sharp bite of the pepper are a surprisingly good match for ripe strawberries, accentuating the sweetness of the fruit, while the panna cotta provides a creamy base for it all.
The only catch with this dessert is that it absolutely has to be made with the best berries you can find and a good-quality balsamic vinegar. Its beauty lies in its simplicity - in the contrast of pillowy soft panna cotta with its subtle peppery notes, of the aromatic balsamic vinegar, and of the acidity of the strawberries. I'm not saying that you should splurge on an $100 bottle of imported balsamic, by any means, but do spend the extra dollar or two to upgrade to a reasonably good-quality brand if you can.
As for the fruit, if you're having trouble finding good strawberries (ie. something local and not giant watery-tasting ones from California), sour cherries or raspberries would be a good alternative.
- 1 packet (¼ oz) gelatin
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ¼ cup sugar
- ½ tsp finely ground black pepper
- 1½ cups plain full-fat yogurt
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup balsamic vinegar
- ¼ cup sugar
- Sliced fresh strawberries
- To prepare the panna cotta, pour milk into a small bowl. Sprinkle with gelatin, and set aside for 5 minutes to soften.
- In a small saucepan, heat the cream, sugar and pepper over medium heat until wisps of steam appear. Remove from heat and add in the milk and gelatin mixture, stirring until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
- In a separate bowl, combine the yogurt and vanilla extract. Whisk in the cooled milk/cream/gelatin mixture, stirring until smooth and evenly combined.
- Pour into four 1-cup ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill for at least four hours to set the gelatin, but preferably overnight to allow the pepper flavour to infuse throughout.
- Meanwhile, prepare the balsamic syrup. In a small saucepan set over medium-high heat, combine the balsamic vinegar and sugar. Bring to a boil, and cook, stirring regularly, until mixture is syrupy and reduced by half.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool completely before using. (Leftover syrup will keep in the fridge for several weeks in an airtight container, and makes a wonderful topping for vanilla ice cream or fresh fruits)
- To serve, dip each ramekin very briefly into hot water to loosen the panna cotta, then carefully invert onto a dessert plate. Spoon sliced strawberries around each of the panna cottas, and drizzle with a spoonful or two of balsamic syrup. Serve immediately.