Panna Cotta: Italy's Elegant Custard Made Easy

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Cumberland House Publishing
[h3]Good things, they say, come in small packages.[/h3]

&nbspI don't know if that's generally true. But it certainly applies to Camilla Saulsbury's latest work. In less than a hundred and fifty pages, she has created a trend-setting volume based on a dish that isn't even new.

Panna cotta is a simple Italian custard, originally from the Piedmont region. I well remember my Italian neighbors serving it often back in the late 1950s and '60s, because it was inexpensive to make, and the flavors could be varied enough so it was a different dessert each time it was served.

Translating, literally, as "cooked cream," the term actually is a misnomer, because it isn't cooked at all. Most custards are based on eggs, and have to be cooked, usually over a double boiler. Panna cotta differs in that it uses gelatin as the thickening agent. "The use of gelatin," Saulsbury stresses, "makes panna cotta a nearly foolproof custard---no eggs to be scrambled by mistake, nor any chance of overcooking."

I called the book "trend-setting" above. I don't use the term lightly. As we'll see, in both popularizing the dish, and taking it in new directions, Pana Cotta: Italy's Elegant Custard Made Easy is in front of the fad.

The thing about panna cotta is that, while everybody knows about it, nobody really knows about it. It's fully accepted by food authorities that it originated in the Piedmont. Exactly when and where, however, is anyone's guess. And, until recently, it was more a home-made dessert than something you'd expect to find in a haut setting. In her research Saulsbury found no mention of any dessert remotely resembling panna cotta---let alone a recipe---until the second half of the twentieth century. And neither Waverley Root's The Food of Italy, or Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cook Book mention it at all.

Most people also think of panna cotta strictly as a sweet, with vanilla bean, chocolate, coffee, and lemon among the traditional flavorings. But, "much like vanilla ice cream, panna cotta is a blank slate of possibilities."

In Panna Cotta: Italy's Elegant Custard Made Easy, Saulsbury explores some of those possibilities coloring that blank slate with a wide range of colors. Many of her offerings are for savory as well as sweet versions. In her hands that blank slate becomes an artist's palette.

In a tightly written introductory section, she introduces us to panna cotta, fills us in on some of it's history, discusses how it is made, and provides a list of ingredients and equipment. It's then on to the recipes, each of which has it's own introductory comments. Many of them have additional notes as well. For instance, her introduction to Toasted Coconut Panna Cotta tells us "this island-inspired coconut concoction is just the thing for warm summer days when you want to keep time spent in the kitchen to a bare minimum. A tiny scoop of tropical sorbet and a shower of toasted flaked coconut secure the flavor and feeling of tropical escape." Later on, in a note below the recipe, she provides instructions for toasting coconut giving both the traditional way (in the oven), and a more modern way (in the microwave).

It's those chatty intros and notes, however, that you have to read carefully. Too often they suffer from minor self-contradictions. For instance, in her Gorgonzola Panna Cotta with Red Currant Gastrique and Crispy Prosciutto (which, by the way, makes as great tasting a first course as it sounds), she says, in the intro, "crispy prosciutto can be made up to a day ahead of time....." However, in her instructions for making the crispy prosciutto, she says, ".....may be prepared up to two hours in advance." Which is it?

Similarly, in her Summer Corn Panna Cotta with Fresh Crab, she says the recipe "is meant for warm, late summer days when the corn is sweet and fresh basil is at its finest." But the recipe then calls for frozen corn kernels.

I also wonder how she unmolds her custards. Both in the intro and the individual recipes she says to dip them in hot water for ten seconds. That might work with metal molds. But anything else requires more time. With some ceramic ramekins, I found it took as much as a minute, depending on recipe.

What happens when the custard unmolds sloppily? Her tip: Use a knife, dipped in hot water, to smooth and reshape it. One of those things that makes you wonder why you didn't think of it yourself.

The recipes are divided into six rather arbitrary chapters, each with it's own contents page. The only internal photos are on those content pages, and are in black & white. But the typefaces used, and the clean, open layout, make the recipes easy to read, despite the lack of illustrations.

What I especially liked were the color photos that serve as a frontispiece. Sort of an illustrated index to what's in store. The downside to this is that there are pix of fewer than half the 100 recipes. Obviously, production costs enter here. But I'd rather have seen each chapter illustrated with color shots of the custards featured in that section.

In today's electronic age it's incredible how quickly things are picked up. I had never heard of savory panna cotta before reading this book. Mentioning the idea to several foodie friends also brought blank stares. A quick google search, however, reveals several versions at various recipe sites. Many of them are picked up right out of Saulsbury's book (often, unfortunately, with no credit). Others are patently derivative in nature. And, still others, obviously owe their inspiration to her work.

Imitation, to coin a cliché, is the sincerest form of flattery. That being so, Camilla Saulsbury has much to feel flattered about.

A small book, indeed. But an influential one for sure.

Gorgonzola Panna Cotta with Red Currant Gastrique & Crispy Prosciutto Recipe

Recipe reprinted with permission from Panna Cotta: Italy's Elegant Custard Made Easy, 2007, written by Camilla V. Saulsbury, Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville, Tennessee.
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