Panna cotta with saffron & rose

It’s February in the Bay area, but it feels like Spring.  The plum trees are covered in fluffy pink and white blossoms.  I wanted a dessert to fit the season, and created this delicate version of the classic northern Italian dessert, Panna cotta.  Though usually flavored with vanilla, this version is infused with two different flowers  — rose and saffron.

panna cotta saffron rose

Panna cotta is cool, gentle, and delicious.  It is very easy to make — as in it takes about 10 minutes to put together, 2 hours to chill, and then it just waits patiently in your fridge until you serve it.  No oven required.  And though it’s often made with cream, feel free to substitute half and half or milk for a lighter, fresher version.

Panna cotta with saffron and rose
serves 6 – 8

2 1/2 cups half & half (use cream for more richness, or milk for a lighter version)
1/4 cup sugar
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
3 TB water
* pinch saffron threads
**2 TB culinary rose water

Pour the half and half into a microwave safe bowl or 1 quart glass measuring cup.  Heat on high for 2 – 3 minutes, or until very warm but not boiling.  Add saffron threads and sugar.  Stir for a minute to allow the saffron to suffuse through the liquid.  It should turn a delicate yellow.

Meanwhile, place the 3 TB water into a small bowl.  Sprinkle the unflavored gelatin over the top of the water.  The gelatin will quickly absorb the water (this will take about 2 minutes)  Add the softened gelatin to the warm half & half mixture and stir until the gelatin is completely melted into the liquid.  Add the rose water.  Strain out the saffron threads, if desired, and pour into small serving containers.  Chill until set, about two hours.

Note:  For the classic version of Panna cotta, omit saffron and rose water and add 2 tsp vanilla extract instead.  Serve with lightly sweetened slices strawberries.

*  Here is a close up of the warm half and half just after I put in the saffron threads:panna cotta saffron ** Be sure to use rose water that’s made for culinary use.  Don’t confuse it with rose water made for cosmetic purposes.

Currant Scones

Many years ago a dear friend and I set out on a trip around the world.  We quite literally circled the globe, heading west across the vast Pacific Ocean from California until we came full circle a couple months later.  Wherever we visited, one of the things I loved most was learning what people ate.  Each culture has its own cuisine, and it’s fascinating to see what food emerges from each particular locale and people.  Toward the end of our trip we flew straight from tropical Africa to winter-weather London.  I remember being stunned at the effect of freezing gray sleet on my suntanned, travel-weary body.  Yet, joy is to be found everywhere.

photoIt came to me in the form of Tea at Harrods on a frigid November afternoon.  I’m convinced that a hot pot of strong tea with scones, double devon cream & jam on a cold, gloomy afternoon is one of the greatest culinary achievements of all time.  I have made these scones for years, and hope you enjoy them.  Making scones is simple, as it’s the same technique as biscuit making.  I’ve included a few tips for getting tender, light scones for those of you who are new to the art of biscuit making.  And being an American, I mean a biscuit, not a cookie.  : )

Currant Scones

makes 12 – 16 scones

3 cups (15 oz) unbleached all purpose flour
3 oz (rounded 1/3 cup) sugar
½ tsp baking soda
⅜ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp baking powder
6 oz (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch chunks
⅓ to ½ cup currants
9 oz (1 cup + 1 TB) buttermilk

In a mixing bowl sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and baking powder.  *Cut the butter into the flour mixture.  When the pieces of butter are no bigger than peas, add the currants and mix to distribute them.

Pour the buttermilk into a well in the center of the flour/butter mixture.  **Gently incorporate the buttermilk into the flour/butter mixture until the scone dough forms.   Form dough into a circle that’s ½ to ¾ inch tall and about 8 inches across.  Using a sharp knife cut the scones into 12 to 16 wedges.  Space the scones at least 3 inches apart on a baking sheet for proper baking.  Bake at 425 for 15 – 20 minutes, or until golden brown on the edges.

Serve hot with jam, clotted cream or butter, and your best tea.

Note:  This dough can easily be made up to a day ahead of baking.  Also, the baked scones freeze well.  Just thaw and briefly heat in a hot oven before enjoying.

* How to cut the butter into the flour mixture:  This is a simple thing to do, but if you’ve never tried it before can seem a little tricky.  It’s the same technique as making pie crust dough.  Here’s a Vimeo with a good visual of cutting butter into flour.  There’s even a great tool designed just for this purpose — a pastry blender.

** Pressing the dough together:  The key here is to fold and press the dough together, rather than stirring.  Stirring the buttermilk into the flour begins to create long gluten fibers as the water in the buttermilk comes into contact with the proteins in the flour.  This is a good thing in yeast bread, but not a good thing in quick breads like scones and biscuits.  The goal is to bring the dough together without making it too springy and tough.  So err on the side of incompleteness when getting the dry and wet together.  It’s OK if there are a few crumbly spots.  It’s better not to over-handle the dough than to have a perfectly smooth round.

Ingredient Tip:  How old is your baking powder?  If it’s older than a year, toss it and buy new baking powder.  It’s not bad, it’s just that it loses its effectiveness after time and exposure to moisture in the air.  This is a key ingredient in getting beautiful, tender, light scones.  When you buy baking powder write the date you bought it on the can so you can always know when it’s time to change it out.

Lemon Poppy Seed Scones

This tasty little treat is great to make when lemons are in full season.  And lucky for us, that happens to be in winter when a little afternoon tea and scone break with a friend may be just what the doctor ordered.

lemon poppyseed sconeYou can use either a regular lemon, or a meyer lemon for this recipe.  The glaze on the top lends a shiny, zippy extra to your scones without making them too sweet.  Try making this dough up to one day in advance of baking.  The  scones will rise nice and high after giving the dough a rest in the fridge.

Lemon Poppy Seed Scones – makes 8 small or 12 mini scones

3 oz (6 TB) butter, cold
2 oz (scant 1/4 cup) sugar
7.5  oz (1 1/2 cups) flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
2 TB poppy seeds
Zest of one lemon
4 1/2 oz (1/2 cup and 1 TB) buttermilk
1 cup (3 oz) powdered sugar
juice of one lemon

Mix together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and poppy seeds in a mixing bowl.  Cut the butter into several pieces, then cut the butter into the flour mixture using a pastry cutter or two knives.  (This is the same technique you use making pie crust dough or biscuits.)  The mixture will be right when all the butter pieces are smaller than peas.  Add the buttermilk and gently mix until the dough just comes together.  Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes, or up to a day.

When you’re ready to bake the scones, heat oven to 400 degrees.

Pat the dough into a circle that is about 3/4 inch tall.  Cut the dough into 8 to 12 wedges, and space the pieces at least 2 inches apart on a baking sheet.  Bake until golden brown – about 20 minutes.

While scones are baking, mix together the lemon juice and powdered sugar to create a thin glaze.  When the scones are done baking, put them on a cooling rack.  While they are still hot, spoon the glaze over the top of each scone.  The glaze will harden and become shiny as the scones cool.  Serve warm or at room temperature.