The boss mails everybody at work one afternoon to announce a pot luck lunch party and calls in for volunteers to bring in home-cooked food. You think yours truly wouldn’t sign up for an opportunity like that?
A tweet was sent out to the universe, for help. And @arundatir came to an almost instant rescue. She suggested two recipes: pumpkin halwa and panna cotta.
@kurtbento had given me a panna cotta recipe that used gelatin. And I had never gotten around to making it. Because I’m stupid.
The boss and several others at work are ‘pure vegetarians’ and I decided to stay away from egg-based recipes and gelatin. So, when I saw @arundatir’s post, I knew what I was going to make.
Her recipe uses agar agar (also called china grass, in some parts).
And here’s my little Agar Agar versus Gelatine analysis.
Gelatin is derived from the collagen inside animals’ skin and bones. Vegetarians, you may start freaking out now.
Agar-agar is derived from a polysaccharide in red algae very similar to seaweed. Vegetarians, smile.
Gelatin melts at 35 degree Celsius and solidifies at low temperatures but the exact gelling would depend upon the concentration and time of standing.
Agar melts at 85 degrees Celsius and solidifies between 32 and 40 degree Celsius.
And that explains why you might need to refrigerate a dessert that contains gelatine, though that may not be absolutely essential for agar-agar recipes.
And here’s about where my attempt at Alton-Brown-ism ends.
Wednesday afternoon was when the boss emailed.
Thursday morning was test-your-recipe morning.
If all turned out well, I’d replicate the recipe for 20 people for Friday’s lunch.
And I got to work.
My recipe is adapted from this recipe on @arundatir’s blog.
For the Panna Cotta:
(makes 4 regular servings)
1. 1 cup fresh cream
2. 1 cup chopped white chocolate
3. 2 tablespoons agar agar
4. 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
5. 1/2 cup milk
For the Sauce:
4. 1/4 cup mixed fruit jam (this is all I had at home and I made the dessert at extremely short notice)
5. 1/4 cup water
For the Panna Cotta:
1. Bring the milk to a boil.
2. Add the agar agar to it and ensure it dissolves completely.
3. Now add the cream and the white chocolate, continuously stirring on low heat until the mixtures comes to a gentle boil.
4. Ensure the chocolate chunks have melted completely into the mixture. Stir in the vanilla essence.
5. Take the saucepan off the heat let the mixture cool. It begins to get thicker, as it cools. Stir it a couple of times to prevent a skin from forming.
6. Pour it into small bowls and chill for a couple of hours so that it sets completely.
For the Sauce:
7. Add the jam to the water and heat gently, stirring it to get a thick sauce.
I used strips of china grass that we have in abundance at home.
@arundatir used fresh fruits, sugar and water to make the sauce for her panna cotta. Of course, I was hurrying things, I had to be at work at my regular time. The recipe worked beautifully because I was done in about thirty minutes. Four cups set away in the refrigerator for post-lunch dessert for the family, and a half cup that I managed to make for myself to sample at work. The panna cotta was set and good to eat pretty much an hour later and without any refrigeration (as opposed to @arundatir’s suggestion to chill for 4-5 hours or overnight) and I will admit, I was surprised. But it looked good. And the fact that it was made in almost record time made me all the more excited. I was almost tempted eat it all up on my drive to work and not leave any for my friends from work. But niceness prevailed.
A select set of folk at work got a bite each of some panna cotta. They enjoyed it. Creamy texture. Just the right amount of sweet. That yumminess of the white chocolate. And that added twist from the fruit sauce. They were really looking forward to having some more of it on Friday. But that’s not what they got. Read on.
Since I was making panna cotta for a much larger batch, I thought I’d work the recipe Thursday night and give it a full night to set (just to be safe). Besides, @arundatir said one could make it up to a couple of days in advance! And her setting-time *was* a lot longer than mine.
I worked the way I had Thursday morning. And everything seemed alright. This time, though, I used a packet of vanilla flavoured agar agar and went by @arundatir’s recipe verbatim. Thirty minutes into having put the mixture aside to cool, it hadn’t begun to set. I was worried. I waited another hour. Still no luck. I finally poured it out into tiny moulds and put it into the refrigerator, hoping that everything would be ok the next morning. It wasn’t. Seven hours later, it still hadn’t set. And it was time to panic.
My mum and I did some last minute improvisations – added more agar agar, but it didn’t work.
I, finally, scrapped the whole lot of gooeyness. And made a quick fix something that everybody ended up referring to as tiramisu and loving thoroughly. The day was saved.
(I used my 5 minute cake-in-a-mug recipe and made 4 mugs of chocolate cake/brownie. I soaked those in a mixture of kahlua and instant-coffee-dissolved-in-water. I whipped up a couple of packets of instant whipping cream. Don’t tell them I used egg and alcohol!
Bottom layer: soaked kahlua chocolate cake.
Next: Whipped cream
Topping: Coffee and cocoa powder dusted over the cups
All done in 45 minutes. Not even close to a good dessert, but what they hell, they loved it. And sometimes, what people love matters more than your love for the recipe!)
However, if you think you know why the panna cotta recipe went wrong the second time around, feel free to let me know. I’ll give it another try and indulge in some more Alton-Brown-ism, in the meanwhile.
And before I end, here are a few tips I found on the web to aid using agar-agar effectively in recipes:
1. Stir constantly when you boil the agar-agar powder or it will set at the bottom of the pan.
2. Because the agar-agar mixture must reach boiling point, use heat resistant molds or glasses.
3. Do not overcook the agar-agar as it will set while cooking.
4. Agar-agar jellies do not need to be chilled to set, but the dessert is more delicious when it is served cold.