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Vegetarian Orange-Ginger Panna Cotta with Gingerbread Crust - Ginger Special Part Three

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It had been a while since I’d seen my oldest friend, so I wanted to make a special dessert for her and her partner. No challenges, no cookoffs, no special requirements (except for the Doctor, of course), I just wanted something lovely and tasty. My friend is not a fan of chocolate, and I wanted something seasonal, so I felt something fruit-inspired was in order. At the time I was planning this dessert, I was also planning to make a flower-infused leche flan for the May Kulinarya theme, but I just… didn’t wind up making it in the end. Anyway, this was more interesting!

I was still stuck on the idea of a custard, but ever since I got my ice-cream maker, custards are just… rather commonplace now. On the other hand, I’d never tried making a panna cotta, or Italian cooked custard before. They are usually reinforced with gelatine, which meant I also got to play with a new ingredient! When I told the Doctor about it, he immediately suggested that I make some gingerbread to go with it – just in case the custard didn’t work out. Or maybe just because he wanted gingerbread. Either way, I didn’t see why I shouldn’t indulge him.

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Orange-Ginger Panna Cotta with Gingerbread Crust

Adapted from Live to Eat: Orange Panna Cotta

Makes 6-8 servings
20 minutes prep time, 45-60 minutes cooling/setting time (overnight for gelatine)

3 cups heavy cream
1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
3/4 cup sugar
7 grams (1 tbsp) agar-agar threads, powder or unflavored gelatine
2 tbsp fresh orange peels
1 tsp vanilla extract, or 1/2 vanilla bean split

6 medium, or 8 small ramekins
Strainer (tea leaf strainer would work perfectly)
Gingerbread cookies, cut out to the size of the ramekins
Ginger syrup

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Oddly enough, despite being part-Chinese and loving desserts, I’d never used agar agar before. Extracted from seaweed, agar is a protein (more precisely, a hydrocolloid) that acts very similar to gelatine in setting liquids into solids. I’d come across hydrocolloids before, when I was attempting to make vegetarian marshmallows with xanthan gum… but that’s another story. Someone remind me to tell it one day!

Agar also comes in powder form, but I got 42 grams of threads for about $3 at the Asian grocery, and 30 grams of powder cost $8 at my local supermarket. I’m not too fussed about having to deal with it in this form.

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I simply snipped off as many threads as I needed with scissors. It kind of has a plastic-like consistency, and bits shattered all over the place. Make sure your broom and dustpan are nearby! The rest of the agar went into a plastic jar with a dessicant pack to keep it from melting in the pantry.

The fiddly thing about agar is finding the right proportion for the amount of liquid. Most recipes say you can use it as a gelatine replacement with a straight 1:1 ratio. But in my (eating) experience, it sets up stiffer than the same amount of gelatine. On the other hand, acid (such as our orange juice) reduces the effectivness of agar, so you have to use more to compensate. So, being that maths nerd that I am (hah!), I just decided to go with the 1:1 ratio replacement after all.

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I peeled and juiced the orange juice for flavouring the custard. As you can see, I did a pretty bad job of avoiding the white pith on the peel, so I had to scrape it off before putting the peel into the custard.

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Put all of the ingredients into a pot, and just let it sit for about 15 minutes. You don’t need to put it on the stove or heat it at all, just make sure all the agar threads are submerged in the liquid.

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After the threads get nice and soft, bring the mix to a gentle simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until all of the agar threads have dissolved. I was impatient and only cooked it for 15 minutes, so I actually had quite a few chewy threads at the bottom of the pot. Oh noes, what should I do?

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While there’s nothing wrong with some extra chewy bits, I decided to strain the custard for a smoother texture. Since I was pouring straight into the ramekins, I used a hand strainer, normally used for dusting icing sugar or cocoa powder.

Leave the panna cotta to cool and set. Agar sets completely at room temperature, so there was no need to refridgerate these. If you’re using gelatine, you will want to put these in the fridge overnight to set firm.

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Construction time! I wasn’t sure which ramekins I was going to use in the end, so I just made gingerbread cookies to fit the biggest ones I had.

Run a sharp knife around the inside edge of the ramekin, and use your fingertip to gently pull the panna cotta away from the sides. This will break the vacuum between the panna cotta and the ramekin, and should allow you to easily wiggle it out. If you used gelatine, you could also dip the ramekin briefly in hot water to loosen it.

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I’m kind of tempted to leave it like this…

Nah, who am I kidding? Trim up any overhanging gingerbread with a serrated knife. Steak knives are good for this kind of fiddly work.

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To serve, pour over some warmed ginger syrup. If you like the base softer, pour some syrup on the serving plate first, and let it soak for about 10 minutes.

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And there you go! A sprig of mint would probably look very pretty on top, and apparently basil pairs very well with orange and cream, but I’m not really convinced. Candied ginger would also add a little more heat and crunch to the dessert.

To be honest, the citrus-flavoured custard and biscuit base really made me feel like I’d spent all this time and creativity just to reinvent… cheesecake. The texture was a bit firmer, the biscuit a bit crisper, but… I dunno. It wasn’t as unique as I thought it’d be. The reactions I got were great, and I do think it was very tasty, but it’s still not a dessert to make one weep and give pleading looks to the kitchen, hoping there’s still more left over.

Ah well, back to the drawing board!

What dessert makes you glad that there’s still leftovers for breakfast? Let me know in the comments!

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