I very strongly believe that Valentine's Day dinners are best enjoyed at home, or at least away from a restaurant. If you rid yourself of expectations of grand gestures from someone, you'll enjoy a much nicer evening because of it.
I've always tried to be a voice of reason, warning my friends not to make plans to eat out on Feb. 14. As early as my teens, I began to realize that date night at a restaurant on Valentine's Day was a disaster waiting to happen because restaurants are always over-booked and over-crowded. You arrive to find only a very limited, over-priced, prix-fixe menu. Seating is maxed out, and the wait staff is overwhelmed before you even make it through the door.
It's a mess, but the fix for a better Valentine's Day is simple. No matter if you want to cook something easy or go all out, make dinner at home. And whether you're eating with friends or a special someone, allow me to give you a sexy little suggestion for dessert: panna cotta. It even sounds sexy, right?
Panna cotta is creamy delicious perfection. In addition to having a great name, it's effortlessly elegant, beyond luscious and plates beautifully. Best of all, it's really simple to make and you can even make it a day or two ahead of time.
I was introduced to panna cotta at a beautiful little restaurant in the Hotel Emma, a former 19th century brew house located in the Pearl District of San Antonio. It was one of those fortuitous nights where my husband and I just happened to wind up in front of a bartender who just happened to be passionate about food and wine pairings. He also just happened to be able to read my mind in terms of what I think is delicious.
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Thankfully, on that fateful night, I was smart enough (or relaxed enough thanks to the vino) to follow the bartender's every suggestion when it came to the menu. We went in intending only to have a drink, and we wound up staying right there at the bar not for dinner but a certified feast.
For his final act that evening, our new friend and bartender-turned-waiter suggested the panna cotta, which I had never had before. Then he suggested pairing it with a Madeira from The Rare Wine Co., which I also had never had before. Basically, it was magic from start to finish. To this day, I still remember it as the best dessert experience of all time.
What is panna cotta?
Panna cotta is sort of the Italian version of crème brûlée. A key difference between the two is that you use gelatin to make panna cotta. In addition to giving it an amazing mouth feel, this makes serving dessert at exactly the right time easier. When you're ready to dig in, you simply take it out of the refrigerator.
The perfect topping for panna cotta
Once you've prepared the panna cotta and have it in the refrigerator, whip up a berry compote to spoon over it or simply dress it with fresh berries and a sprig of mint. Top it with berries, cherries, mangoes, pomegranate seeds or even a light dusting of cocoa powder and/or a sprinkle of dried coconut — the sky's the limit with this vanilla version.
The best way to serve panna cotta
Panna cotta looks beautiful presented in coupe glasses, but plain white ramekins are also perfectly fine. If you prefer to serve it on a plate, you can do so once it has thoroughly cooled and set in the refrigerator. First, place an individual panna cotta in a pan of warm water for about 15 seconds. Then run a knife around the edge, put a plate on top of it and turn it over to gently jiggle it out. Voilà!
Recipe: The Best Panna Cotta
- 1 cup whole cream
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 package powdered gelatin
- 1/4 cup water
- Combine cream, milk, sugar and vanilla in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves and bring it to just a simmer. Remove from the heat and cover.
- In a small bowl, sprinkle the powdered gelatin in the water and stir to combine. Let it sit for 5 minutes.
- Reheat the cream mixture to a simmer and stir in the gelatin until completely incorporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Pour into four ramekins (or gorgeous glasses) and cover with plastic wrap. Using your fingers, make sure the plastic wrap touches the surface of the panna cotta completely. Place each one in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours to cool and set.
Not familiar with unflavored gelatin? It's on the baking aisle of any grocery store. A common brand is Knox, and each box has 4 packets inside. This recipe uses only one of those packets, which comes in handy since you'll want to make more.
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More from Bibi's Southern kitchen:
- Unlike lots of recipes for pecan pies, this one is tried and true
- This naturally creamy soup is made without dairy or dairy alternatives
- The recipe for this easy-to-make, old-fashioned coconut pie has been passed down through time
- Salmon is the star of this dressed-up version of hot artichoke dip — and it's so darn easy to make
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