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Rachel Allen on panna cotta - the cream of the crop

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Desserts don't need to be elaborate - says Rachel Allen. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Desserts don't need to be elaborate - says Rachel Allen. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Panna Cotta with raspberries. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Panna Cotta with raspberries. Photo: Tony Gavin.

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Desserts don't need to be elaborate - says Rachel Allen. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Desserts don't need to be elaborate. It's true that every so often a colossal creation can end a meal in style. Looking up at a croquembouche, with its cascading tower of profiteroles and caramel, is an impressive finale to a feast. Yet, most of the time, that isn't what I want after a big dinner. I still want something sweet and rich, but just a little taste of it. Few desserts are more perfect than a silky panna cotta.

The Italians may have invented panna cotta (its literal translation is cooked cream), but I think it was the Irish that perfected it. We have the best cream on the planet in this country. So a simple dish of sweetened, just-set cream is at its best right here at home.

When the cream is so good, I think a panna cotta needs nothing but the gelatine, a little sugar and perhaps a hint of vanilla. I'll sometimes change the spice, adding, perhaps, a little cinnamon instead of vanilla, depending on what was served for the rest of the meal.

While it does stray from pure panna cotta, I love using yoghurt instead of some of the cream. The result is less rich and has that characteristic yoghurt tang. It's just divine with cardamom, and especially if it is embellished with some ruby-red pomegranate seeds.

The amount that a panna cotta sets is crucial to its success. If it sets too little, it will collapse and seem like curdled cream, though it will still taste delicious. If it sets too much, your panna cotta will be rubbery and chewy. And, if you get it just right, a spoon will slide in to take a piece that will melt in your mouth.

I've carefully measured the quantities of these recipes and they have the correct ratio of gelatine to cream (or yoghurt or coconut milk). You should, of course, feel free to experiment with your own panna cotta recipes, just try and keep to the same ratios as I have here. Or, if it doesn't work out, just adjust and try again next time!

Panna cotta with raspberries

Serves 4-6.

You will need:

300ml (10fl oz) cream

25g (1oz) caster sugar

1 vanilla pod, split, see my Tip, above

1 leaf of gelatine

Fresh raspberries, to serve

Mint leaves, to serve

Put the cream, the caster sugar and the split vanilla pod in a saucepan and slowly bring up to a simmer. Turn off the heat and leave to infuse.

Meanwhile, put the gelatine leaf into a bowl with just enough water to cover it. After 4-5 minutes it will have softened completely. At that point, take the softened gelatine out of the water and put it into the saucepan with the hot cream mixture. Remove the vanilla pod. Whisk gently until the gelatine dissolves. If the cream has cooled down too much, you might need to reheat it slightly with the gelatine in it. Pour the panna cotta into ramekins or glasses, then place them in the fridge for about two hours until the panna cotta is set. Serve with fresh raspberries and mint leaves.

Coconut and cinnamon panna cotta

Serves 4-6.

You will need:

150ml (5fl oz) cream

75g (3oz) caster sugar

1 stick of cinnamon

2 leaves of gelatine

1 x 400ml (14fl oz) tin of coconut milk

Put the cream and the caster sugar in a saucepan and add the cinnamon stick. Bring to the boil, stirring constantly to dissolve the caster sugar. When the sugar has dissolved, remove the saucepan from the heat and leave to infuse.

Place the leaves of gelatine in a bowl, adding just enough cold water to cover them, and set aside for 4-5 minutes, or until the gelatine has become very soft.

Empty the tin of coconut milk into a large bowl, whisking it to get rid of any lumps. Place the cream mixture in the saucepan back on a medium heat to heat it through, then remove it from the heat.

Remove the gelatine leaves from the water, allowing any excess water to drip off, then stir them into the hot cream until dissolved. Mix together thoroughly, then pour the coconut milk through a sieve on to the cream-and-gelatine mixture in the saucepan. Stir to mix everything together. Divide the panna cotta between the cups or glasses and chill in the fridge for about three hours or until just set.

Yoghurt and cardamom panna cotta

Serves 4-6.

You will need:

1 leaf of gelatine

200ml (7fl oz) milk

2 tablespoons honey

½ teaspoon ground cardamom seeds

175ml (6fl oz) natural yoghurt

Place the gelatine leaf in a bowl of cold water and leave it to soak for 4-5 minutes until it is soft. Put the milk, the honey and the ground cardamom seeds in a saucepan and slowly bring up to the boil. Drop in the softened gelatine leaf and stir to dissolve it. Set the saucepan aside for about 10 minutes or until it has reached room temperature.

Put the natural yoghurt in another bowl and add the milk and honey mixture from the saucepan, whisking to mix everything well. Pour the mixture into glasses or cups and put them in the fridge for two hours until the panna cotta is set.

Serve straight from the fridge.

Peach jelly panna cotta pots

Serves 6.

For the peach syrup jelly, you will need:

Sunflower oil, for oiling

300ml (½pt) water

110g (4oz) caster sugar

3 peaches, halved and stones removed

3 leaves of gelatine

For the panna cotta, you will need:

300ml (½pt) cream

25g (1oz) caster sugar

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

1 leaf of gelatine

Lightly oil the inside of 6 x 100ml (3½fl oz) ramekins with a little sunflower oil. Carefully line the ramekins with cling film, allowing extra to hang over the sides for covering the top of the dish when it has been filled, then lightly oil the inside of the cling-film-lined ramekins with more sunflower oil.

To make the peach syrup jelly, fill a large saucepan with 300ml (½pt) of water and add the caster sugar. Set on a medium heat and stir until the caster sugar is dissolved. Then, bring the sugar mixture to boiling point, add the halved peaches, reduce the heat and allow everything to simmer for 5-8 minutes or until the peaches are soft. Take the pan off the heat, remove the peaches from the syrup and peel away their skins. Put each peach half, cut side up, in one of the lined ramekins.

Place the three gelatine leaves in a bowl of cold water and soak them for 4-5 minutes until they have completely softened. Lift the softened leaves out of the water and add them to the hot peach syrup in the saucepan - reheat it if it has cooled. Stir until the gelatine leaves have dissolved. Divide the hot peach syrup equally between the six ramekins, trying to keep the peaches central in each dish, then chill in the fridge for two hours to set.

To make the panna cotta, put the cream, the caster sugar and the vanilla pod in a saucepan and slowly bring to boiling point, then turn off the heat and allow the vanilla to infuse the mixture.

Place one leaf of gelatine in a bowl of cold water and allow it to soak for 4-5 minutes until it has completely softened. Lift the softened leaf out of the water and stir it into the hot cream mixture until it dissolves. (If the cream has cooled down too much, you may need to reheat it slightly once the gelatine has been added.)

Allow the cream-and-gelatine mixture to cool to room temperature, remove the vanilla pod, then pour the panna cotta over the set peach jelly in the ramekins.

Gently cover each dish with the excess cling film that is hanging over the sides, then place in the fridge to chill for 2-3 hours or until set.

To serve, turn each ramekin upside down on to a plate, carefully remove the ramekin dish and then, very gently, peel off the cling film.

Rachel's tip

Don't throw away used vanilla pods. Dry them off and place them in a jar with some caster sugar. They will last for years and infuse the sugar with their gorgeous vanilla flavour. Vanilla sugar can then be used in so many desserts.

Rachel recommends

Jack Crotty, aka The Rocket Man, is a Ballymaloe-trained cook who has featured in this column before. His farmers' market stand with its gorgeous array of salads has been one of my favourite places to grab lunch whenever I'm shopping on market day. All his hard work at various farmers' markets has built The Rocket Man a loyal following and he has successfully launched a bricks-and-mortar salad and juice bar, The Rocket Man HQ, in the heart  of Cork city. The Rocket Man HQ sells the same divine salads as his stall,  as well as much more.

The Rocket Man HQ, 38 Princes St, Cork City, Cork, tel: (086) 822-9624, or see facebook.com/therocketmancork

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