My daughter looks forward to Valentine’s Day the same way she anticipates Halloween, the other “sugar holiday”. She loves making Valentines for her friends at school and collecting cards and goodies in her homemade “mailbox”. I know she also secretly hopes for an unexpected treat from me. I’m not a big dessert person–eating it or making it–but I can appreciate a little girl’s desire for something sweet and pink on a special day. Usually I cave and make heart-shaped pancakes with bright red berries for breakfast, but should I fail to plan ahead, then dessert it is.
It’s a shame Valentine’s Day falls in February since the dessert begs for vibrantly colored fresh berries or plump red cherries, but alas it’s not their season. I love the idea of using red, though, so I decided on an stark white Almond Panna Cotta, fancied up by a brilliantly colored cherry sauce made from frozen cherries. Since the cherries are cooked, it’s really no compromise using frozen ones. (In fact, I kind of like not having to pit them!)
Panna Cotta–translated to cooked cream–is a naturally gluten-free dessert that’s similar to a custard, but easier to make. Instead of gently cooking egg-thickened custards in a water bath for an hour, panna cotta gets its structure from gelatin. The technique is simple: Sprinkle a packet of plain, unflavored gelatin over a little cold water so it can “bloom”. (Find gelatin in the baking aisle.) Heat a combination of almond milk, half and half, and sugar until the liquid just steams. (You can use heavy cream for a richer version, though I enjoy the lightness of this less traditional combination.) Whisk the hot liquid into the gelatin until it dissolves and add the flavoring. Strain the liquid into individual ramekins and it’s ready for the fridge. Basically you’re making jello–milk jello.
The panna cotta needs several hours in the refrigerator to set and chill, but there’s no other custard cooking involved. Making the sauce takes less than ten minutes, and you can prepare it while the dessert chills. Serve the panna cotta straight from the ramekins, or, to look like you’re running a restaurant kitchen, unmold them onto dessert plates. (Dip the ramekins in a bowl of warm water to loosen the panna cotta, run a knife around the edges, and invert.) Drizzle the cherry sauce over the panna cotta for stunning variation in color. For my special Valentine, I like to shave a little dark chocolate over the top. The bitterness makes a perfect match for the sweet cherries. And that’s what we’re celebrating–perfect matches. Enjoy ~LbR