Wiggle room

The purest cook attempts panna cotta without gelatin, only to find the efforts fall short.

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Panna cotta with strawberries (Bill Hogan/Tribune photo / May 23, 2010)

Good food is derived from the good ingredient. Which is why the cook practices prejudice.

Her kitchen shows no tolerance for food coloring, bouillon cube, cornstarch or gelatin. Which strike her, respectively, as garish, salty, gluey and wiggly. She has no tolerance for garish, salty, gluey or wiggly.

Until she attempts panna cotta.

Panna cotta is Italian for cooked cream. She figures any recipe that calls for Italian and cooked and cream must be good. Pint jar in one hand, wooden spoon in the other, she stirs happily, until called on to add gelatin. She shudders.

The cook substitutes egg white, mindful that her dish might be mistaken for French blanc manger. She switches to whole egg, risking trespass into flan territory. She tries yolk only, offending creme brulee.

She whips the cream, producing something resembling mousse, but not something resembling tasty. She considers the thickening properties of the icebox and the been-there-done-that properties of ice cream.

None of her efforts yield what she seeks: a pure white mound of cold, thick cream. Having exhausted her supply of cream and of patience, she turns to the informed, only to learn that panna cotta can be bolstered by seaweed or fish glue. She sighs. And rips open a packet of gelatin.

Which works. Sprinkled sparingly, the granules bloom and plump, pulling together a pure white mound of cold, thick cream. Each spoonful offers a delicious lesson in tolerance and a convincing argument for wiggle room.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor.

leahreskin@aol.com

Panna cotta

Prep: 20 minutes

Chill: Overnight

Makes: 8 servings

1 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon gelatin

1 1/2 cups whipping cream

1 1/2 cups creme fraiche

1 cup sugar

1/2 vanilla bean

1 pint strawberries

1/2 cup water

1 Soften: Pour 1/2 cup milk into a bowl. Sprinkle with gelatin. Set aside.

2 Simmer: Pour remaining 1/2 cup milk, the cream, creme fraiche and 1/2 cup sugar into a large heavy saucepan. Split the vanilla bean; scrape seeds and bean into the milk mixture. Heat to a simmer over medium-high heat, whisking constantly.

3 Thicken: Pour a little of the hot milk mixture over the gelatin. Whisk smooth. Whisk in the remaining milk mixture. Let cool.

4 Chill: Discard bean. Pour mixture into eight 4-ounce ramekins or glasses. Cover and chill overnight.

5 Serve: Run a knife around the edge of the ramekins and unmold onto dessert plates or serve panna cotta right in the glasses. Slice strawberries. Heat remaining 1/2 cup sugar with 1/2 cup water to a boil. Boil 3 minutes. Turn off heat. Stir in berries. Pour hot berries over cool cream. Enjoy.
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