Thursday, August 24, 2017

Promises Fulfilled - Rosemary Lime Panna Cotta

Two years ago, I made a promise.

Two months ago, I booked my ticket.

Two weeks ago, I fulfilled that promise.

On August 10, 2017, in beautiful Trabia, Sicily, one of my closest friends, D., was married.

After a glorious, stately, at times hilarious, very Catholic ceremony, legal papers were signed, rice was thrown, Prosecco was toasted and the newlyweds were sent off in a car amidst much fanfare and drone videography, leaving all the wedding goers to make their way to a nearby bar for much-needed cool drinks.

I have to admit, none of the pictures and very little of the official wedding video show that it was a scorching hot day and everyone was sweating right through their clothes! Air conditioning doesn't seem to be terribly common in Sicily (Europe?), and the church was aired out by electric and handheld fans at best. Some prescient soul had strategically placed handheld fans on the pews, which were clutched by happy couple, wedding party, and guests alike with a rather religious fervor. The day was lovely, however, and everyone was happy to see them wed.

Once we made it to the bar, well wishes, toasts and carefree jokes were slung. My favorite regarded the bachelor's party, when D. had been whisked off to London for the night. The bride was asked whether she allowed it. Her response? Well, she is Sicilian, so of course she said no, but he is Sicilian, so of course he went!

At the wedding reception, the incredible (and alarmingly ample) food was concluded with a stunning selection of small desserts, each around the size of a petit four. One was fragola panna cotta, or strawberry cooked cream, a tiny pink oval that quivered in the gentle breeze. My friend A. and I discussed this for a while, concluding that it was almost entirely cream and strawberry juice, with either gelatin or egg whites just barely holding it together.

I haven't managed to find really good strawberries this summer, since my time has been consumed by work, karate, and the thousand little tasks that supposedly claim that I am a functioning adult. However, limes are in season during the summer, and the tiny rosemary sprout on my balcony hasn't died yet. I made this flavor combination in a form of a soda first, squeezing the juice of a lime over some ice cubes, tossing in some rosemary syrup and topping up with sparkling water. It doesn't quite qualify as a recipe, but I definitely recommend making a second batch of rosemary syrup just for this! If you're out of limes, lemon juice works brilliantly, too.

On a side note, this recipe requires a refrigerator and some time between components, around 3-4 hours. If pressed for time, I suggest just the panna cotta and leaving the jelly layer for another opportunity.

Rosemary Lime Panna Cotta
Adapted from David Lebovitz, because that man is a god of dessert
Makes around 2 3/4 cups of panna cotta and 3/4 cups jelly, or 3 1/2 cups of dessert total

Rosemary Syrup
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
~2 inches of rosemary sprigs, chopped or torn apart, keeping the stems

1. In a small saucepan, heat the water, sugar and rosemary until the sugar has all dissolved. Allow to cool and steal some for drinks.

Note that this same saucepan can be used to make the panna cotta.

Panna Cotta
2 tsp powdered unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup rosemary syrup
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Tiny pinch salt
2 tbsp finely grated lime zest, from around 3 limes. Save the lime juice for the jelly.

1. In a small bowl or cup, place the 1/4 cup rosemary syrup and sprinkle the gelatin over it. This allows the gelatin to soak up the water and "bloom" so it thickens without lumps. The gelatin will look lumpy anyway, so just sprinkle it as evenly as you can and let it sit to work its magic for a while.

2. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and cream until it starts to steam slightly. Take it off the fire and add the lime zest. Add the rosemary syrup and gelatin and gently stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved and there are no grains detectable.

3. Find four glasses, cups, ramekins or other small serving containers and divide the panna cotta mixture between them. Refrigerate until somewhat firm, around 3 hours or so.

1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp powdered unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup rosemary syrup
1/4 cup lime juice, from around 3 limes

1. Once the panna cotta appears to be relatively firm (I test by tilting it slightly; if the top is gelled enough for a second layer, it won't spill), place the 1/4 water in a small bowl or cup and sprinkle the gelatin over it.

2. In a small saucepan, or honestly, a microwave if you have one, heat the rosemary syrup and lime juice until hot, between 15-90 seconds depending on the fortitude of your microwave. Boiling the liquid tends to destroy the gelling power of gelatin, and you only need the liquid warm enough to dissolve the gelatin completely.

3. Stir the gelatin and water into the lime juice and rosemary syrup until there are no grains detectable and the mixture is cool enough to touch.

4. Pull the firm panna cotta from the refrigerator. Over the back of a spoon (to prevent divots and holes), lightly pour the jelly mixture over the panna cotta.

5. Return to the refrigerator and chill for another 3 hours to fully firm up the jelly. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Barcelona - Museu de la Xocolata

I'm home, and I'm safe, but I cannot say the same for over a hundred others.

On August 17, 2017, I came home from Barcelona, Spain.

When I touched down in LAX, my phone buzzed with concern from friends, asking if I was okay. It turns out that while I was in the air, not 24 hours after I and hundreds of other tourists had wandered Las Ramblas with nothing more on the mind than where to have dinner, terrorists had struck.

The night before, on Wednesday night, August 16, a house exploded in Alcanar. On Thursday, August 17, a van swerved down the pedestrian area of Las Ramblas with the aim of killing and hurting innocent strangers and hours later, a second vehicular attack took place in Cambrils.

All I can say is that Barcelona is amazing. It is strong, with people already defying terror by returning to Las Ramblas. Barcelona mourns, but is also rallying around peace, tolerance and revival. World leaders and residents are supporting each other. After a moment of silence on Friday, August 18, declarations of "No tinc por/No tenim por" and "No tengo miedo/No tenemos miedo" were heard loud and clear, chanting "I am not afraid/We are not afraid" in Catalan (the language of the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital*) and Spanish, respectively.

As a tourist, there isn't much that I can do. By chance, I left the beautiful city just an hour before the attacks, graced by luck. All I have to contribute is standing in solidarity with those who love Barcelona, whether lifelong residents or visitors for mere days, and those who condemn terrorism, as all decent beings should.

One of the few things that I can do is support the voices that say that we are not afraid. Whether resident or traveler, I am not afraid to live. The terrorists aim to strike fear, preventing education, travel and the opening of minds and hearts to those who are different. To me, to travel is to explore someplace new, to speak a new language, to make new friends, learn about other cultures and bit by bit, expunge the very ignorance that leads to the fear of the unknown. It is this fear of the unknown that controls and oppresses. Terrorists kill and hurt to impose their close-minded intolerance on others. They are the antithesis of the thoughtful traveler, who leaves their comfort zone to meet those who are different.

With this goal in mind, I would like to turn from tragedy and focus instead on a reason to visit Barcelona. On Wednesday morning, I had the opportunity to take a Chocolate Workshop at the Museum of Chocolate, or Museu de la Xocolata, in Catalan. For someone who thrives on unusual flavor combinations, particularly in the realm of sweets, this was the perfect workshop. For 20 euro, a small group and I were led by a skilled pastry chef in the fine arts of mixing a ganache, molding a chocolate bar, forming our own chocolate lollipops, putting together chocolate rocks, and finally, filling bombons (or truffles, I think, in American English) with the ganache.

We worked for two hours under the tutelage of our kind instructor, with pastry bags of dark, milk and white chocolate at our disposal. The ingredients, laid out neatly in clear glass bowls save for two limes with a grater for zest, tempted. They included flaky salt, poppy seeds, candied bits of dried strawberry, fresh raspberry, slivered almonds, peanut halves, cinnamon, vanilla sugar, and even whole toasted corn kernels. In the end, my favorite combination was probably poppy seeds, lime zest and candied strawberry in a dark chocolate base, with a touch of salt. We were allowed to pour one bar and as many lollipops and rocks as we wanted, so I took home quite a haul, having gone a bit overboard messing with the various flavor combinations. We made lollipops by piping chocolate bases on top of skewers, then adding chocolate or ingredient decorations. We could swirl the chocolate before it cooled to make designs, or just pile on the toppings! Rocks were even simpler; we just mixed a small bowl full of toppings, then added melted chocolate to bind it all together. The ganache was then removed from the refrigerator, and each of us was given six chocolate shells to fill.

In the end, once all of the chocolate was refrigerated and cooled, we got to pack each item gently in a paper bag. Our instructor then took us on a brief tour of the chocolate sculptures featured in an annual contest. Notable were the oldest sculpture, a 31-year-old art piece named Pietat (Piety), and a copy of the Sagrada Familia with one of the towers missing! It turned out that a pope had been presented with the beautiful chocolate sculpture, and promptly ate one of the towers. Well, I guess no one denies the pope his chocolate...?

Afterward, I spent some time in the cafe, ordering a butter croissant and a cold chocolate. I intended to order a cup of hot chocolate, but with the temperature edging past 30C (85F) and humidity hovering around 74%, that idea suddenly didn't seem so.... hot. The croissant was exactly as I hoped, crisp edges, tender center, plenty of layers, and the flavor of pure butter. The cold chocolate, though, was the star of breakfast. Churned constantly like a slushy in the States, it was rich, milky and smooth, with incredibly refreshing little chips of ice throughout. I savored the slightly bittersweet glass.

With only a total of four days in Barcelona on my trip, I consider myself very, very lucky to have been able to attend this workshop, offered about once a month according to the website calendar, on my one full day in Barna. The rest of the day and my entire trip (story to be continued) was memorable for many reasons, but the Chocolating Workshop at Museu de la Xocolata was definitely a highlight. I loved every minute, and am so thankful that I was able to attend. Barcelona is beautiful and strong, and as a community, we will persevere. No tinc por.

* The political situation regarding Catalonia and Madrid is delicate, and I am by no means qualified in the least to express an opinion on this.