February 12, 2012
The first time I met Jill, she thought I was a Buddhist nun. I was nineteen years old and my hair was buzzed very, very short; part of a why-the-hell-not, let’s-see-what-it’s-like experiment undertaken by my roommate Rebecca and I. Since it was a religion class that I walked into that day, you can understand why Jill assumed what she did—the rest of the campus assumed that Rebecca and I were girlfriends and/or militant, man-hating feminists, but neither of those things were true.
I don’t believe in love at first sight (don’t people really mean lust, anyway?) but I do remember what Jill was wearing that first day, and I remember sitting enraptured for forty-five minutes when I heard her lecture for the first time. I remember knowing, without really knowing how I knew, that I wanted this person to be in my life, in a big way, forever.
It is a tremendous gift, love. To love another and have that love returned. I take it for granted, get caught up in big and little details, worries, and ambitions, as if other things matter more than loving the people in my life—as unselfishly and joyfully as possible, growing in my capacity to give and receive love.
I have been blessed in many, many ways, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jill is the absolute best thing that ever happened to me. She’s my best friend and my Valentine, and she endorses this dessert.
VANILLA BEAN PANNA COTTA
makes 6-8, depending on the size of the molds/cups you use
Panna Cotta is probably one of the simplest and most adaptable dessert recipes out there; I used vanilla bean because it’s Jill’s favorite flavoring, but you could easily swap in other flavors, like coffee or citrus. This Panna Cotta recipe does not call for much sugar (again, Jill’s preference is for barely-sweet desserts), so feel free to bump up the sugar to 1/3 or even ½ cup, if you so desire.
I served our Panna Cotta as the coda to an early-Valentine’s-Day-at-home, steak-and-champagne dinner, pairing the dessert with some strawberries steeped in David Lebovitz’s red wine sauce: dead simple to make and pairs perfectly with the creamy dessert. You could also serve the Panna Cotta more simply, with almost any fruit of your choice; berries tossed with some Grand Marnier and sugar would be quite nice.
2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
half of a vanilla bean*
1 packet powdered gelatin
3 T cold water
Pour the cream and sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Split the vanilla bean with a sharp knife, scraping the seeds into the pan. Heat the cream, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove the saucepan from heat, cover, and leave to steep for at least 30 minutes.
In the meantime, pour a bit of neutral oil, like canola, onto a paper towel and lightly coat the inside of whatever containers you plan to use—I used ramekins, but coffee cups or small bowls would work just as well.
In a separate bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water; let it sit for 5-10 minutes. Re-warm the cream, then pour the very warm mixture over the gelatin and stir until dissolved.
Pour the Panna Cotta into the cups, dividing equally. Chill until firm, 2-4 hours. When ready to serve, run a knife along the inside of each cup (I also use a small spoon to help with loosening). Invert each Panna Cotta onto a plate, and garnish as desired.
*You can substitute 1 tsp. of vanilla extract, but you won’t get the same intense vanilla flavor or the specks of vanilla seeds floating on top.