Sometimes I have no idea why I decide to make something. Like creating a vegan panna cotta. Panna cotta (cooked milk in Italian), the meltingly tender dessert bound with gelatin, is so easy to make that it almost doesn’t count as cooking. It’s particularly great for entertaining because it can be completed a day or more ahead of time and flavored a gazillion different ways. A Meyer lemon panna cotta from the San Francisco Chronicle provided the initial inspiration and a kitchen coaching client with few cooking skills and a desire to make a vegetarian dessert (which means no gelatin) clinched the deal.
I started where a lot of us do—searching the Internet. I downloaded a bunch of variations and tips on agar agar. I didn’t know anything about agar agar, especially not its price, about $75 per pound!!! It’s taken about 10 or 12 tries (coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk, soy creamer both vanilla and plain, coconut and soy yogurts; flavorings including sugar, maple syrup, lemon, vanilla, and coffee; plus varying amounts of agar agar); I have a recipe I like.
Agar agar is seaweed and comes in a powdered and flaked form. The type I bought is a very, very fine powder. My first experiments, following recipes I’d found, yielded perfect-looking desserts so firmly set they bounced like rubber balls. I rarely spit food out, but had to several times.
Unfortunately for my experiments, I discovered I do not much care for the taste of soy milk. The creamer is better, especially when it’s unflavored. Many panna cotta recipes include buttermilk or yogurt for the tartness. This version is all plain soy creamer. The yogurt version had a thicker, almost lumpy texture and an unappetizing, if very chic, beige color. The dessert tastes light but satisfying and has about 168 calories per serving.
- 4 cups/2 pints plain soy creamer
- Pinch salt
- 2 g (3/4 teaspoon) powdered agar agar
- 3.5 ounces/100 g (1/2 cup) sugar
- 1 vanilla bean
- 2 sweet bay leaves (Laurus nobilis)
- 1 pint berries, cleaned and sliced if large
- Sugar to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or to taste
- Toasted, slivered almonds (optional)
- Put 1 pint soy creamer, the salt, agar agar, and sugar in a medium saucepan and set aside to let the agar agar soften, 5 minutes. Split the vanilla bean down its length. With the tip of a sharp knife, scrape the seeds into the saucepan and then drop the pods in the creamer as well. Add the bay leaves.
- Put the remaining pint of creamer in a medium bowl with a spout and place a strainer on top. Set aside.
- Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring the creamer mixture to a gentle simmer and cook until the agar agar has completely melted, about 2 minutes. Whisk occasionally, making sure to cover the bottom and sides of the pan, but do not stir so vigorously that you create froth. Turn off the heat and let the vanilla and bay infuse the creamer for about 20 minutes. Taste every few minutes and once the bay flavor is strong enough, discard the bay leaves.
- If the mixture seems to have thickened after its rest, reheat gently until very smooth. Pour the hot creamer through the strainer into the bowl. Reserve or discard the vanilla pod (see Quick Notes) and discard the bay leaves. Divide the panna cotta mixture among eight 1/2-cup, straight-sided ramekins. Make sure to stir or swirl the mixture to keep the vanilla seeds suspended in the mixture so that each portion will get a fair share.
- Transfer the ramekins to the refrigerator until set, about an hour. Chill several hours more before serving.
- In a medium bowl, stir the berries together with sugar to taste and the lemon juice. Set aside to macerate for at least an hour. Stir gently several times.
- To serve, run a thin-bladed knife around the edge of each ramekin. Place a dessert plate over the ramekin and quickly upend the plate and ramekin, giving it a good shake, so that the panna cotta falls onto the plate. Garnish with a spoonful of macerated berries and a few toasted almonds, if desired.
Agar agar is expensive but you need very little, 3/4 teaspoon or 2 grams, to set 4 cups of liquid. It gels liquids at room temperature. This is a great advantage if you need to take a dessert to a pot luck. This one won’t melt on the way.
The firmness is right on the edge—when fully set, the dessert in its mold will jiggle a little but it keeps its shape when unmolded.
The flavoring was inspired by the panna cotta I had recently at Incanto restaurant where the bay leaf-flavored dessert was served with a strawberry garnish and Mugolio, a pine cone bud syrup from Italy. I use leaves from my Laurus nobilis (sweet bay laurel tree). Most bay leaves sold in stores are from California bay that have far stronger, more resinous flavor. If that’s what you have, use just one leaf and taste the infusing cream every 5 minutes. Remove and discard the leaf when the flavor is to your liking. I
love using a whole vanilla bean here, scraping the seeds into the milk, and then dropping in the pod as well. As the dessert sets, the seeds fall to the bottom. So when unmolded onto a plate, the seeds all show on the top, making a pleasing presentation. You can rinse and dry the vanilla pod after use—for instance, putting it in a very, very low oven until thoroughly dry—and then grind it in a spice mill to mix with sugar for a vanilla sugar.
Do serve the dessert with macerated berries (mix together any seasonal berry—raspberries, strawberries, blackberries—with sugar to taste and a squeeze of lemon until the fruit releases its juice). Adding a few toasted, slivered almonds add a nice textural contrast.
Diet type: Vegan
Diet: Low calorie, 168 calories per serving
Meal type: dessert
Culinary tradition: Italian