Monday, June 7, 2010

Taste Lab: Hazelnut Milk Panna Cotta

I have been looking for hazelnuts for some time now.  I've been experimenting with Nutella cookies lately, and the hazelnut flavor always gets lost during the baking process.  I am convinced that I need ground hazelnuts to make it work.  I have looked in every store I can think of, but no hazelnuts.

I did, however, stumble across hazelnut milk.  I picked some up, hoping to find the perfect chocolate hazelnut panna cotta recipe. 

Panna cotta is a cold italian dessert that is similar to a custard, but way easier to make - there's no tempering of egg yolks or baking in a water bath.  I usually find that it's a bit firmer than custard, but softer than Jello.  It's the perfect light dessert - no matter how full you are, you'll always have enough room in your stomach for a few bites of panna cotta.  However, just because it's light in texture, doesn't mean it's light in calories: panna cotta literally means "cooked cream" in Italian, and most recipes only involve three ingredients: heavy cream, sugar, and gelatin.  I don't make panna cotta very often because it's dangerous for my waistline, but I couldn't pass up the prospect of a good cooking experiment.  After doing a lot of research, I channeled my inner Bill Nye and got to work.

Because hazelnut milk is pretty thin, I decided to cook it with some heavy cream to thicken it. I also cut down on the sugar because the hazelnut milk was already lightly sweetened.  When I was done cooking the panna cotta mixture, I divided it into five glasses/ramekins.  I left one plain, for comparison purposes.  I added cocoa powder (which is a great way to add chocolate flavor without any additional sweetness) to two of them: one tablespoon to one and one teaspoon to another.  Because I worried that the hazelnut notes wouldn't come through if I only added cocoa powder, I added half a tablespoon of Nutella to the fourth one.  I added two drops of almond extract to the last one, for an extra nutty panna cotta.

Texturally, the panna cotta came out just the way I wanted it.  It was on the softer side of panna cotta, probably more similar to custard than anything else.  However, I don't think it would hold together if you tried to unmold it onto a plate.  This was fine with me, as I prefer to eat my panna cotta out of a cup, a little bit as a time, and put it back in the fridge to finish later. 

I am happy to report that all of the flavor variations turned out great.  However, I noticed that when the panna cottas had set, the ones with cocoa powder had a darker layer on the bottom, while the one with Nutella had a dark skin on the top.  I suspect that this won't be a problem if you cook the cocoa/Nutella with the panna cotta mixture instead of stirring it in afterwords, but it was delicious even with the different layers.

In my mind, the panna cotta with the smaller amount of cocoa powder was the winner.  The chocolate and hazelnut flavors were perfectly balanced and a bit subdued, which is what I was hoping for.  In the recipe below, I will refer to this is chocolate hazelnut panna cotta.

The panna cotta with Nutella was also very good - the Nutella flavor was very pronounced, and you'll probably prefer this one if you're a big fan of Nutella.  However, because of the additional sugar in Nutella, this panna cotta was very sweet, so you should cut down on the sugar even more if you're planning on adding Nutella.  In the recipe below, I will refer to this as Nutella panna cotta.

The panna cotta with 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder was delicious, with a deep chocolate flavor.  However, the hazelnut flavor didn't come through at all.  I think this amount of cocoa powder would be the perfect amount if you want to make chocolate panna cotta, which you could make with any other kind of milk.  However, if you are using regular milk, you might want to add a little more sugar to the mixture, as regular milk is unsweetened.  I will refer to this variation as chocolate panna cotta in the recipe below.

The panna cotta with almond extract was nice and nutty, but again, the hazelnut milk got overwhelmed by the almond extract.  You could probably add almond extract to a panna cotta made with any other milk and get the same effect. 

The plain hazelnut panna cotta was very delicious.  The hazelnut flavor was there, but it was very subtle.  I think that it would be great served with a tart berry compote or coulis, to offset the sweetness of the panna cotta.

Hazelnut Milk Panna Cotta

1 1/2 cup hazelnut milk (I used the Pacific Foods Beverage brand)
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 envelope gelatin*
2 tablespoons water

Chocolate Hazelnut Panna Cotta: add 1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder
Nutella Panna Cotta: add 2 1/2 tablespoons Nutella and reduce sugar to 1/4 cup
Chocolate Panna Cotta: add 5 tablespoons cocoa powder

In a shallow bowl, bloom the gelatin: sprinkle the gelatin over the 2 tablespoons of water.

In a saucepan, combine the milk, cream, sugar, and cocoa powder/Nutella (if using).  Stir over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  Remove from heat.

Heat the gelatin in the microwave for 8 seconds and scrape all the gelatin into the cream mixture, quickly stirring it all together.  Let the panna cotta mixture cool for a little bit before dividing them into glasses or ramekins.  Chill the panna cottas in the refrigerator for at least three hours or until firm. (I let it set overnight.)

* If you want a firmer panna cotta that you can unmold, use a ratio of 2 cups liquid to 1 packet gelatin.  I would suggest 1 cup hazelnut milk and 1 cup heavy cream.  Reduce the sugar according to your personal tastes.

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