Once upon a time, panna cotta was a simple custard dessert, a rather humdrum affair, an unexciting option, in my opinion, to be passed over in favor of, say, a gushing lava cake. Indeed, the trusty food dictionary,"Food Lover's Companion," describes the classic as "...a light, silky egg custard, which is often flavored with caramel.” End of story.
But having recently discovered the Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Panna Cotta at Delfina in San Francisco, I’m thinking a re-write might be in order. Today, panna cotta is a cook's canvas for showing off style, talent and local, seasonal ingredients.
At Delfina, pastry chef Abby Olitzky subs buttermilk for the regular milk involved (panna cotta typically consists of just milk, cream, sugar and gelatin) to give her final product a lighter, brighter taste. She further punches up the flavor with Meyer lemon juice. The quivery creation is then topped with segments of local Ora Blanca and Star Ruby grapefruits that are glazed with a sauce of their juices and simple syrup. The texture is sublime; the flavor, a captivating mix of sweetness and tang.
Olitzky is not alone in exploring the possibilities of the panna cotta repertoire. At Babbo in New York City, Mario Batali does a rich, barely sweetened, saffron-tinted custard topped with juicy blackberries and a bracing lemon sorbetto. Farther uptown, Daniel Boulud delights diners at DB Bistro with an exotic lemon grass panna cotta served with vanilla-strawberry sorbet.
But panna cotta isn't limited to the dessert menu these days. Savory versions are showing up as hors d'oeuvre and entree. Jeff Jackson, executive chef at The Lodge at Torrey Pines here in La Jolla, does a sumptuous panna cotta flecked with caviar and smoked salmon; and French-born chef Jean Marie Josselin of Josselin’s Tapas Bar & Grill in Kauai wows guests with his edamame (soybean) panna cotta with a hint of fiery wasabi. I also loved the work of Chef Gordon Mayberry, who’s made waves at the Peninsula Hotel, New York city and Loews, Miami Beach: a sublime goat cheese panna cotta with creme fraiche and fresh basil, served warm with toasts.
This is the gastronomic version of the little black dress. Play it straight with a strand of pearls, or go Gaga with edible bling --- you can’t go wrong with this versatile Italian favorite.