Christmas Desserts

It was always my job, from about the age of 13 on, to make dessert for Christmas dinner. So long as I was baking away I was relieved of all other Christmas dinner duties.  As far as I was concerned, that was a good deal, but I'm not sure how my brother and sister felt about it. All would be forgiven as soon as the cheesecake, torte, or even zabaglione came out.  A rich, over the top creation to fill our already overflowing tummies.

Things sure have changed.  Now I do all the work - dinner and dessert - and am stuck with most of the clean-up too.  Not that I'm complaining if it means having a lovely, albeit raucous dinner at home. My desserts have changed too.  Gone are the rich, chocolate affairs.  Those are still good, but after a rich, starchy dinner I've trained myself to want something lighter.

Last year it was Key Lime Pie.  Oh, was it pie!

This year I am opting for Panna Cotta.  Appropriately, the first time I had it was at a Christmas lunch for the office. I have no idea what was served for the rest of the meal, but I can still taste that first bite. While it is not exactly light considering that it is made with loads of cream, the perception is of something lighter.  Still an indulgence, but a slightly more refreshing one.

Panna Cotta is essentially Jello for grown-ups.  Made with cream and flavoured with lovely essences like vanilla, orange, or raspberry is takes jello far beyond any layered, Cool-Whip concoction you've ever had. Oh, and it is so very simple to make.  So simple that after you've made it you wonder why you ever thought gelatin was a scary thing.  Trust me, I can't make Jello, so this was indeed a scary endeavour. But all you do is let the gelatin bloom - a fancy word for get activated by a liquid - and stir it into your sweetened, flavoured cream. Then chill.

In fact, undo your pants, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and definitely chill in the post-feast bliss.

Merry Christmas!

Orange Scented Panna Cotta
(serves 6-8)

3 cups heavy cream
2 oranges
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp unflavoured, powdered gelatin (1 1/2 packets in Canadian grocery store availability)

1. Prepare a mold or 6-8 individual ramekins/bowls/glasses by cleaning thoroughly and letting air dry.
2. Zest oranges.  Stir zest into cream along with sugar and vanilla.
3. Juice oranges.  Add enough water to equal 1 cup liquid.
4. Place a few tablespoons of the juice/water into a small bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin. Let sit for about 5-10 minutes. Mixture will feel like a very firm gelled substance.
5. Heat cream mixture until just simmering and sugar is well dissolved. Remove from heat. If you do not want to see the zest in your finished panna cotta strain through a fine-mesh strainer at this point.
6. Stir in the gelatin to the heated cream mixture until smooth and all the gelatin is dissolved. Pour into molds, ramekins, cups, or bowls.  Chill 10 minutes, stir gently.  Chill 3 hours or overnight.