Monday, 28 July 2014

Vanilla panna cotta with poached figs, honeycomb, thyme, yoghurt and Rioja syrup

After last week’s truly delicious charred octopus recipe, the second part of my series with Campo Viejo wines will focus on something sweet. The main problem with this being that I don’t really do ‘something sweet’. Regular readers will note the sheer absence of any post dinner snackage, and it’s a definite failing on my part. My passion for cooking started in baking cakes and seeing the joy that they inspired, and I always feel satisfied whenever I am persuaded to order one in a restaurant. I bow at the sheer technical skill and precision required to make top level desserts, and I scoff at the telly at ‘chefs’ who scratch their head at the mere thought. I guess the real reason for my lack of recent practice is the usual lunchtime timing of my recipe testing. I find it hard to feel inspired to cook for a whole morning or longer before sitting down to an elevated trifle. Now you say that it doesn’t sound all that bad… 

But anyway, this series at least forced me to change these bad habits and come up with something more than the usual bread and butter pudding or fromage frais. And not only that, one that featured Rioja. Enter second problem. Wine in desserts and me aren’t normally the bestest of friends. A wine-poached pear or Christmassy glass of mulled wine can back off. So this was clearly going to be a challenge. Luckily the balance of flavours in this recipe really worked for me, with the panna cotta and yoghurt creating a mellow contrast to the wine and tempering it to an almost chocolate taste. I was very happy with the way that the recommended Reserva performed, and it has made me slightly rethink my previously aggressive stance towards this kind of dish. With the cinnamon and bay there was a hint of Christmas there, but like everything it was all about the balance. 

Panna cottas have to be the ultimate standby dessert dish, especially if entertaining. They are so simple to make, and you can have them setting happily in the fridge for days before you need them. Then it’s just a case of tipping them out and adding any accompaniments. The beauty is in the detail though, and getting the amount of gelatine just right. You basically want it to be on the cusp, and famously when finished it should wobble like a voluptuous bosom. The texture should be meltingly soft and creamy, but any heavy handed attempts will normally be pretty forgiving and still joyful to eat. If you don’t quite add enough and the cream remains unset, you can always gently melt them in a saucepan before dissolving in another leaf and setting again. Once you have nailed it you’ll make them again and again. A more summery dessert with berries, fruits or in this case, figs, I cannot imagine.  

Serves 4  


For the panna cotta:  

300ml double cream 
375ml whole milk 
170g caster sugar 
3 leaves of gelatine 
1 vanilla pod 
1/3rd lemon, zest 
1 tsp vegetable oil, to grease  

For the poached figs and wine syrup:
6 ripe figs, halved 
500ml Rioja 
1 cinnamon stick 
5 sprigs of thyme 
100g caster sugar 
1 bay leaf  

For the honeycomb:  

100g caster sugar 
3 tbsp golden syrup 
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda  

To finish:  

1 tsp thyme, leaves picked 
4 tbsp natural yoghurt 

Start by making the panna cottas. Put the gelatine leaves into a shallow bowl and cover with cold water. Use the vegetable oil to grease the sides and bases of 4 ramekins. Pour the milk and cream into a saucepan along with the sugar and lemon zest. Split and scrape the vanilla pod and add both the seeds and the pod to the pan. Gently heat up until just simmering, stirring occasionally. When the sugar has fully dissolved, remove the gelatine leaves from the water and tear into milk mixture. Continue to heat for another five or so minutes, or until all of the gelatine have been incorporated. Tip a few handfuls of ice into a large mixing bowl and place a smaller, metal bowl on top. Strain the mixture through a sieve into the top bowl, then stir frequently until the liquid is a very cold temperature. Pour into a jug and use this to fill up the ramekins evenly. Cover with lids or cling film and refrigerate overnight. 

Now make the honeycomb. Use a wooden spoon to combine the sugar and syrup in a cold saucepan. Stop stirring and put onto a medium heat until the sugar syrup has fully melted and is bubbling away. Do not be tempted to stir again at this point, just gently tilt the pan to move the mixture around. When the sugar turns a deep golden brown colour, remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda. Stir vigorously at this point to combine well, then tip out into a deep oven dish lined with greaseproof paper. Allow to cool, then cover and refrigerate to set. When ready, tip out of the dish and use a rolling pin to smash into small pieces. 

For the poached figs, add all of the ingredients to a large saucepan and put on a medium heat. Bring to the boil, then cook for another 3-4 minutes. Transfer the soft figs into a bowl with a slotted spoon and add a few additional tablespoons of the wine syrup. Raise the temperature in the pan and reduce the wine by two-thirds, then pass through a sieve into a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate both the figs and the wine sauce for at least an hour, or until needed. 

To plate up, use a sharp knife to carefully cut around the edges of the ramekins before tipping the panna cottas onto each plate. Arrange three fig halves around, then sprinkle over some of the honeycomb. Dot on a little yoghurt and spoon over some of the syrup, then finally finish with a few thyme leaves.

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