I bought a carton of strawberries.
I did it against my better judgment—the berries were suspiciously big and still a little out of season, not to mention overpriced. They were so red I couldn’t help but feel suspicious.
But I bought them anyway because I wanted to make panna cotta, and I thought berries would make the plate prettier. Plus, I’d found a half-cup of cheap cabernet in the fridge, forgotten by the apartment’s previous tenants, and I figured that would be enough to make mediocre berries taste good.
I went home and got to work, chilling the panna cottas and reducing the wine to a slow-bubbling glaze. After all that, I popped open the box of strawberries. I was surprised—they actually looked really good. Well, I thought, I’m glad they’ll photograph nice. I scooped up a handful, ran them under water, and let them tumble onto a cutting board, which slowly pinkened with juice. Before slicing, I picked up one of the smaller berries, pinched off the green, and popped the whole thing in my mouth.
With one bite I was transported home to Seattle, to our front yard, to my mom’s strawberry patch.
She planted the seeds when I was a senior in high school. They’ve grown prolifically since then, the leaves a dense carpet. The berries are tiny, thimble-sized, and redder than roses. They’re profusely floral, like perfume in your palms, so fragrant you taste them before you’ve parted your lips. Each bite melts on your tongue and the sweetness probably causes cavities.
They’re the best strawberries I’ve ever had.
One year, I infused some into a jar of bourbon. Another time, I made shortcakes with thick dollops of real cream. But they’re always best as-is, still warm from the sun, by the bowl-full. My dad likes to dip them in black pepper, a preference I found off-putting until I tried it. You can’t actually taste the pepper—like salt on chocolate, it simply enhances the berry itself.
Once I’d settled on red wine strawberries, I added pepper to the panna cottas, without hesitation.
The grocery store strawberries weren’t as good as my mom’s. Not even close. But they were outrageously better than I expected. The panna cottas were, too.
I was nervous they would stick to their molds, but each panna cotta wobbled right onto the plate. The texture was perfect—-firm enough to hold a shape, yet soft and creamy as pudding. The edges were smooth as marble. I’d originally imagined the pepper sprinkled throughout, and I was disappointed they had settled down instead. But on second glance, I liked the way it looked—-pure white with black flecks crowning the top, like caviar, gently trickling down.
And the berries. Glossy, sweet, and superbly robust. The color contrast was gorgeous. I didn’t regret stirring them into the red wine reduction, even though I usually like to eat delicious fruit as-is.
I’ll save that simple happiness for the next time I’m home.
A few notes about this recipe. The pepper wasn’t as spicy as I’d hoped, but the subtlety was lovely. If you want to really taste the pepper, though, add more, maybe even twice as much. I used a vanilla bean, which I think made it better (and prettier,) but you can also use extract. Finally, if you aren’t planning to turn out the panna cottas (just keep them in the molds, wine glasses, teacups, whatever) you could try using a tad less gelatin for an even softer texture.
Black Pepper Panna Cotta
Tweaked from David Lebovitz, who tweaked from Judy Witts
Makes 8 servings
4 cups (1l) heavy cream
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 1/4 tsp finely ground black pepper
2 packets powdered gelatin (about 4 1/2 teaspoons)
6 tablespoons (90ml) cold water
Stir the heavy cream, sugar, black pepper, and vanilla bean (split lengthwise, using both the seeds and the pod) in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, then immediately remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 30 minutes.
While the flavors infuse, lightly grease eight custard cups with a neutral oil (I used canola). Sprinkle the gelatin onto the cold water in a medium bowl and let sit for 5 – 10 minutes.
After the half an hour is up, remove the vanilla bean pod and gently reheat the mixture.
Pour the warm cream over the gelatin. Stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Pour the panna cotta into the prepared molds and refrigerate until set, 2 – 4 hours.
To unmold the panna cottas, I dipped the molds part-way into a bowl of warm water, then ran a knife around the edge of each cup. Flip onto a plate and gently wiggle the cup until the panna cotta lets go. Serve with red wine strawberries, or whatever you like.
Red Wine Strawberries
Also adapted from David Lebovitz
Makes enough to accompany the panna cottas
1 cup (250ml) red wine
6 tablespoons (100g) sugar
1 to 2 small baskets of strawberries (about 8 ounces, 200g)
Heat the red wine and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat until it thickly bubbles. Let the red reduce into a syrup, until only half of it remains (1/2 cup, 120 ml). Remove from heat and let cool completely.
Toss the strawberries (washed, hulled, and sliced) in the red wine reduction. Let sit for a minute or two, then spoon beside the panna cottas. They would also be incredible on cheesecake or vanilla ice cream.