In January 2000, having survived Y2K, I came home to my wife and Minnesota after working as a line cook in New York for more than half a year. Cocksure from the experience, I walked into the then hot, now defunct, Aquavit restaurant in the IDS Crystal Court, looking for a job. In my mind, I was past working the line. I was ready to be a sous-chef.
While they did offer me a position, it wasn’t for sous-chef. Instead they stuck me on pastry. Initially I balked and thought about leaving, but on the first day, perhaps the very first recipe I tried to cook, I dropped a whole egg, shell and all, into a large batch of cake. As the mixer paddle smashed the egg, distributing shell throughout the batter, the pastry chef, Adrienne Odom, peered into the mixer, shot me a look, then turned her back and walked away—I imagine to have a good chuckle.
That day I scooped ten pounds of chocolate, ten pounds of butter, and one smashed egg into the garbage. Humbling for sure. I ended up spending the next nearly two years learning how to make the most fun part of a meal from Chef Odom. Here’s a great recipe she recently shared with me—a luscious caramel panna cotta, creamy and decadent and perfect for summer.
Caramel Panna Cotta
Note: Panna Cotta can be made days in advance.
Makes 6 to 8 portions
¼ cup cold water
1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
½ cup sugar
1 quart cream
½ teaspoon salt
Put the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the powdered gelatin evenly into the water. The gelatin will swell and soften in the water. If the gelatin is not sprinkled evenly, it won’t absorb entirely in the water and bits of gelatin will remain undissolved in the finished panna cotta. Set it aside for later.
Put the sugar in a 2-3 quart pot big enough to easily accommodate the cream. Make sure to have the cream nearby and ready to pour into the caramel later in the recipe.
Turn the heat to medium. Do not stir or adjust the heat until sugar has browned around the edges and is mostly melted. This will take roughly 3-5 minutes.
Stir the mostly melted and browned sugar with a wooden spoon. Look for consistent brown color and all the white sugar crystals to melt as you stir. (This can be tricky the first time because the temperature of the caramel rises quickly and can burn. If this happens, don’t panic. Simply fill the pan with water, heat it on the burner, dissolve the burnt sugar into the water, and start over. No big deal, you just wasted a little sugar and about 5 minutes of your time, and hopefully learned to make caramel in the process. One more warning: sugar melts at high temperatures. Do not get it on your skin or you will get a nasty burn.)
When the sugar is dark brown, it is now caramel, turn off the heat. Make sure the caramel is fully browned or the caramel flavor will be weakened with the addition of the cream.
Add the cream. Be careful to add the cream slowly, in a steady stream, to avoid the cream bubbling over the edge of the pan. The cream will cause the hot caramel to seize into solid chunks with a large burst of steam. This is normal and should be expected.
Turn the heat on low and stir to dissolve the hardened caramel chunks into the cream.
When the caramel has dissolved, turn the heat off and stir in the gelatin. Make sure the cream mixture is not simmering when you add the gelatin or it will weaken the gelatin’s thickening strength.
Stir in a pinch of salt.
Using a ladle, pour the mix into ramekins or glass cups, and refrigerate them uncovered for 6-8 hours.
Serve with berries or your favorite crumbled cookies.