The “pastry side” of the kitchen is in charge of more than just the regular dessert menu. The two chefs are also required to prepare little mignardise, bite-sized sweets that are served after the main course. And then there are the pre-desserts served during dinner service and Sunday lunch; slightly larger sweets usually served in verrines (small glasses). We go through quite a lot of these at the restaurant and during my month there so far, it’s these two tiny dishes that have been occupying most of my time.
The thing about these mignardise and pre-desserts is that there isn’t much space, and the chefs, having no desire to make the same thing over and over, are often calling on their creativity to come up with something a bit different each time to present to the guests. There are the basics: chocolate, mousse, creams, panna cotta, fresh fruits and nuts, and flavored whipped creams. In four weeks I’ve seen quite a few flavor combinations using these basics.
Lately, the pastry chefs have charged me with the task of making the panna cotta and mousse, giving me the proportions for the base ingredients and then having me run through the recipe with them orally so that I can work independently, assembling the ingredients into a finished product while they charge themselves with the more tricky parts of something on the dessert menu. And though I’ve made quite a bit of panna cotta and mousse this past week, the process still scares me.
It’s not so much that either of these recipes are difficult – even on a grand scale such as the restaurant requires – it’s the constant reminder that if I screw up, not only will I get a severe verbal lashing, I’m also costing the restaurant time and money.
That means I’m always in my own kitchen, practicing these simple recipes to make sure I have the process down and can run through it smoothly without thinking too hard or too long.
I already made a simple panna cotta once on my own, after I learned that the recipe was really incredibly easy and gelatin is nothing to be afraid of. But now that I’m occasionally allowed to choose my own flavors and “mix-ins” I decided that I would have to be more adventurous this time around in order to learn what might happen if I add an extra liquid, or a new flavor to the cream – and test my own creativity.
Orange panna cotta seemed like a weird idea at first, but then I got to thinking: it’s just like a creamsicle. And I loved creamsicles as a child. Do they still exist?
Either way the sweet acidity of the orange was calling me. Their season in France is almost at an end, and while it will be possible to buy oranges still, there will be so many other fruits tempting my eye at the market.
I have to admit, the first time I had panna cotta, I was rather meh about it. I mean, it’s just cream and gelatin. But with a good, heavy cream, just the right amount of sugar it can be creamy and rich, and so easily adaptable with any flavor or topping. Kind of like a basic vanilla ice cream.
This orange panna cotta was very dense, but wonderfully smooth and velvety and took on the flavors of orange juice and Cointreau beautifully. I topped it with a chocolate whipped cream as I still haven’t mastered the piping bag. And it made for a more sinfully rich dessert.
If I’m going to get into this pastry thing, I might as well go all out.
- 250 g heavy cream
- 25 g sugar
- 1 orange – juiced
- 1 tbsp Cointreau
- 1 ½ – 2 sheets gelatin*
- For the whipped cream
- 20g dark chocolate
- 100g heavy whipping cream, 35% fat or higher is a must
- In a large dish filled with enough water, soak the gelatin for at least 10 minutes. One of the chefs told me you want around 10X the amount of water for each sheet of gelatin. I like to start this first so that by the time I’ve assembled and prepared all the other ingredients, I know the gelatin will be ready.
- Pour all the remaining ingredients into a pot and whisk together. Heat on the stove top just to a boil. Watch carefully because you don’t want the cream to come to an actual boil or to spill over the top of the pot.
- Remove the cream from heat. Wring out the gelatin of all water with your hands – just crush it in your fist, it’s not a big deal if it breaks – and add to the cream, whisking vigorously all the while to make sure the gelatin dissolves. Keep whisking for longer than you think you need to, until you are really sure the gelatin is completely dissolved. Gelatin chunks in panna cotta is gross.
- Pour into molds and let sit in the refrigerator at least 2 hours.
- As for the whipped cream:
- Melt the dark chocolate with a little bit of the cream in a bain-marie. Put the rest of the cream in a medium sized bowl. Once it’s melted, fold it into the remaining cream and gently stir until all the chocolate has been absorbed and the cream is a chocolate color all the way through.
- Check to make sure the cream is cool. If it isn’t, place it in the refrigerator for a bit until it’s cooled down. It doesn’t have to be as cold as the fridge, but you want it fresh. Using a hand mixer, beat the cream on medium for about 5 minutes. The raise the speed to high and beat for a few minutes more until still peaks have formed. Be sure not to over-mix or you’ll have chocolate butter.
- Eat with spoon or spread on cakes or panna cotta or what-have you.