Panna Cotta played on repeat during my Philly restaurant days. Easy enough to make yet somewhat needy, the delicate gelatin-based custard was flecked with vanilla beans and lemon zest. Individual portions required transfer from ramekins to ginormous dessert plates where they were splashed with fruit sauce á la Jackson Pollock. It was the un-molding that was always dicey, requiring a warm, (but not too warm), kitchen towel, an offset spatula, and a little luck. Ok- more than a little.
My panna cotta recipe calls for 2.5" x 9" sheets of gelatin, vast quantities of heavy cream and yields way too many servings for a home kitchen. There are many variations on the cold Italian custard which simply translated means "cooked cream," and it lends itself much like a blank canvas to fresh berries, fruit compotes, drizzles of caramel, or liqueur. Since it requires only a brief simmer on the stovetop, panna cotta is the perfect warm weather dessert. Just make sure you allow a minimum of three hours for it to set up, preferably more, so when you un-mold it (if you choose to go that route) the custard will stand on its own with just enough jiggle.
Despite the fact that Rhubarb prefers working solo, this week's recipe is more of a group project, pairing the opinionated pie plant with tart cherries and almond frangipane. The rich dough benefits from an overnight snooze in the fridge; ditto the frangipane. Prep the fruit in the morning and roll the dough into your shape of choice. Circles, rectangles, and squares are equally agreeable; I opted for squares (gathering the four corners together creates fruit filled parcels). Take the time to let the filled pastries chill for 30 minutes (or more) before baking to help them keep their shape. If you have a gift for planning ahead, (a concept I am woefully unfamiliar with), the pastries can be assembled in advance and frozen for later baking. Best to freeze them on a parchment lined baking sheet before transferring them to well-sealed plastic bags. Just before baking, brush the frozen turnovers with egg wash, cut a few steam vents in the pastry and bake until deeply golden. A sprinkling of almonds is optional, but recommended.
Rhubarb has a long, storied history- originally utilized for herbal and medicinal purposes. Botanically speaking, the pink and green stalks are considered a vegetable, and didn't appear in American seed catalogs until 1839. When sugar became less of a luxury item and more affordable (here and abroad), sweetened rhubarb began to steal the spotlight in spring-centric desserts. And because strawberry season aligned with rhubarb in many parts of the country, the two were paired together. Early recipes for rhubarb pie could be a little vague. In 1878, rhubarb was mentioned in Jenny June's American Cookery Book with the note, "This Is one of the greatest spring luxuries though the quantity of sugar required to be used with It renders It rather expensive. Sugar may be put In as long as your conscience will let you, and a handful afterwards."
Interesting to note, In 1947, the United States gave rhubarb the legal designation as a 'fruit' to avoid the high tariffs Imposed on Imported vegetables. (It was cheaper at the time to bring fruit Into the country.) Today, rhubarb adds a hit of brightness to sweet and savory dishes, but lends Its distinctive pucker to the double crusted dessert we can't get enough of. You'll probably see a little (or a lot) of rhubarb drama play out tomorrow at your local Farmers' Market as the individuaI just ahead of you snags the last stalks from your favorite purveyor. Just a thought- the world can be a greedy place; consider leaving a little for the person waiting patiently behind you. Chances are pretty good you'll be able to get your hands on one or two containers of the season's first gem-like strawberries. Even if you're a rhubarb pie purist, sweet strawberries will temper rhubarb's brazen flavor which means you can take it easy on the sugar. (There's nothing quite so disappointing as an overly sweetened fruit pie, imho.)
For a 9" pie, The Joy of Cooking recommends equal parts early season rhubarb and strawberries (5 cups total) teamed with 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup minute tapioca, orange zest, pinch of salt. Bake at 425 degrees F for 30 minutes then reduce heat to 350 degrees F, and bake until bubbly about, 35 minutes more. Cool completely. Enjoy.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm