Panna cotta in Italian, literally means "cooked cream," however it is the name of a bafflingly popular and simple dessert from the same country (although it is quite similar to Pascha, a Russian/Finnish Easter dessert, made like a panna cotta with sour sheep's cheese). It is almost always made by simply simmering milk, cream, and sugar, adding gelatin, and cooling. At a brief apprenticeship stint I did at an Italian restaurant in Boston, I learned a panna cotta recipe that used a somewhat cream cheese-like curd, as well as a Crema that started with a warm hazelnut custard, to which gelatin was then added, and the whole allowed to cool. Herein, I used the latter as my goal for texture.

Making panna cotta out of egg nog seemed too obvious. I mean, nog is already basically a thin custard, so all one really has to do is add some gelatin, dissolve it, and let it cool, right? I almost skipped the dish all together, as I figured that it wouldn't be worth trying since it was so straightforward. But I'm glad I did, because I figured out some pretty interesting things in my experiment..

For all of my panna cotta, I used Hannaford egg nog. Because I had the most of it left at the time.

My first somewhat embarrassing attempt did not have enough gelatin, and came out with roughly the texture warmed Camembert, which, although a beautiful texture for the cheese, was not very appetizing. The gelatinous feeling on the tongue made me think of the Blobs from Futurama, which does not make for a pleasant dining experience.

My second l panna cotta was also just egg nog and gelatin. The problems seem obvious in retrospect: The nog is just too thin to make an unctuous finished product. I heated 2 cups of egg nog to 180˚ F, removed from the heat, and whisked in 0.5oz of powdered gelatin. I then poured this into my molds (which in this case were just silicone cupcake cups because that's the first thing I could find), and let them come to room temperature before putting them into the fridge for about 60 minutes (an important step that is often neglected. If you skip this step, a discolored skin will form on top of your panna cotta. Additionally, the slower cooling time allows for air bubbles inside the panna cotta to rise to the top and be released, leaving you with a smoother end product. Also, it is bad food safety practice to put hot things directly into the fridge, as it will raise the temperature of the fridge, which is bad for everything). In the end, there was just not enough fat in the dish to lend that desirable unctuousness. It had too much the texture of Jell-O, which was not really what I was going for.

Well, egg nog panna cotta was proving to be more difficult than I expected. My second recipe followed the guidelines as the first, with the addition of 1 tempered egg yolk and 1T or sugar, to up the flavor quotient. Unfortunately, with the additional fat and the gelatin, this product was smooth, but just too dense. Plus, the flavor still needed work. What novice dessert makers (myself included) tend to overlook is that in making a full-flavored bite, one needs to account for many different factors that go into a dish. While Hannaford egg nog is delicious as a beverage, it needed a lot of help in the flavor department to make a satisfying dessert.

The key factor here is tongue distribution. As a drink, the tongue-coatingly eggy viscosity of egg nog rolls over every available taste bud, the plentiful fat molecules gently sweeping over them (this is why milk is so good at cooling your tongue after spicy food: the fat molecules literally drag the capsaicin and capsaicinoids [spicy molecules found in chili peppers] off your tongue, where they would otherwise continue to irritate the mucous glands in your mouth, as they are non-water soluble proteins). However, once gelatinized, the now solid nog only has access to so many taste buds. Also, the volatile flavors lent primarily by the nutmeg and cinnamon now have more trouble freeing themselves and floating on up to the Olfactory Nerve Ending, located in your nasal cavity (this nerve is technically the only part of the central nervous system exposed to the open air), which is responsible for your entire ability to smell and detect flavors. So, since with panna cotta, I am now dealing with the solid state of matter, I need to turn the proverbial volume up on the noggy flavors which are struggling to be noticed.

Here I used a serrated butter knife to help illustrate the texture.
Coincidentally, I found my more attractive mold for these during the same run in which I created a recipe with which I was satisfied.

What I learned from my past three goes was that I basically needed more of everything in proportion to gelatin. The recipe for my Egg Nog Panna Cotta is as follows:

2C Egg Nog, Hannaford in this case
2T Sugar
1/8t Grated Nutmeg
1/8t Ground Cinnamon
1/2t Kosher Salt
2 Eggs
0.5oz Gelatin

Heat nog, spices, salt, and sugar to 180˚ F (82.2˚ C). Immediately remove from heat. Ladle about 1/2C nog mixture into a small bowl containing your 2 lightly beaten eggs and whisk thoroughly. Add eggs back into pot, continuing to whisk thoroughly. Pour into as many molds as necessary, let come to room temperature, then chill for ~60 min. Unmold gently, serve.

Well, I'm the first to admit that this was not a terribly creative endeavor, but one worth the process nonetheless. If you're like me, and have something to the tune of 6 quarts of egg nog kicking around in your fridge with which you don't know what to do, make up a whole mess of this and freeze it! Otherwise, keep your eye out for future experimentation, as egg nog is a seasonal flavor that none should take for granted!


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