Lemon Panna Cotta and Gingerbread with Blueberries and Thyme

Lemon Panna Cotta with Gingerbread and Thyme
When we were in Nashville last week, we had the joy of eating at Catbird Seat – an intimate restaurant with a unique seating that allows its guests to watch the chefs prepare each plate.  This restaurant combines the nuttiness of molecular gastronomy and the comfort of Southern cuisine.  It’s impressive without being too fussy.  The food was amazing and we left very satisfied!  We were served things like grilled morel mushrooms stuffed with chicken liver pate (my favorite),
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a yeast soup filled with smoked croutons and potatoes (tasted exactly like a loaded baked potato),
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and the dish that inspired today’s post: a lemon cornmeal cake with goat’s milk panna cotta and blueberries with thyme and marjoram.  Here’s a pic of the dish from the restaurant:

This was one dish that I knew I could conceivably recreate at home without any fancy equipment.  Watching them assemble this was mezmerizing and I took a few guesses as to what each component was before the chef handed me the plate.  Perks of being able to talk to the chef while they’re plating 🙂  When I got home, I dreamed up my own version.  I love lemon and thyme together, so I knew I’d keep that aspect of the dish.  Instead of putting lemon in the cake like they did, I infused the panna cotta with lemon and then made a gingerbread for the base because I love the flavors of gingerbread and figured it’d go well with everything.  And it did!  I happened upon some really great blueberries that actually TASTE like blueberries and the combination of all the flavors is delicate but powerful and the panna cotta is so smooth, it risks falling completely apart if moved too much.  I loved how this turned out and it really wasn’t that hard to make the components and assemble.  Next time you’re at a restaurant and love a dish – try to recreate it at home!  It’s a good way to learn to be creative in the kitchen!

Lemon Panna Cotta with Gingerbread

Lemon Panna Cotta with Gingerbread

For the panna cotta (to be done a day ahead)*:

1 cup whole milk, divided
2 tsp. unflavored gelatin
2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
Zest from two lemons, plus a wedge of the lemon
1 tsp vanilla bean paste (or one vanilla bean, scraped)

Pour 1/2 cup milk into a medium bowl; sprinkle gelatin over. Let sit until gelatin softens, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine cream, sugar, lemon zest and wedge, and remaining 1/2 cup milk in a large saucepan. Scrape vanilla seeds from bean into saucepan; add bean (or add your vanilla bean paste). Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat; cover and let steep for 10 minutes.
Bring cream mixture back to a simmer. Add gelatin mixture and stir until dissolved. Strain. Divide among eight 3/4-cup ramekins. Chill uncovered until panna cotta is set, at least 6 hours.  *adapted from Bon Appetit

For the gingerbread (to make a thin version like mine):

2¼ cups sifted (9 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon Dutch-processed cocoa
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
¾ cup mild or light molasses
¾ cup (5¼ ounces) sugar
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup milk
1 large egg

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large, rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper and spray with nonstick spray.

Whisk together the flour, baking, soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice and coca in a medium bowl.

Beat butter, molasses, sugar, buttermilk, milk , and egg in a large bowl with an electric mixer on low speed. Add the dry ingredients and beat on medium speed until the batter is smooth and thick, about 1 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Do not overmix. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface.

Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and the edges have pulled away from the pan sides, about 20 minutes. Set the pan on a wire rack and cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Gingerbread can be wrapped in plastic, then foil, and refrigerated up to 5 days.

*if you want to make a regular pan of this, simply bake in a 9×13″ pan and bake for 35-40 minutes.   Adapted from The New Best Recipe.

The Creme Brulee of Lemon Bars

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I’ve stuck to this recipe for a few years now.  I love lemon desserts and my only complaint is that something claiming to be a lemon dessert isn’t ever lemony enough.  I want a ZINGER of a lemon shock.  I know this may cause several of you to stop reading, but given the choice between a GOOD lemon bar and a brownie, I’d choose the lemon bar.  Not every time.  Like I said, it’d have to be good.  Not too eggy, just enough curd, just enough crust, big time lemon flavor and another thing: don’t dust your lemon bars with confectioners’ sugar.  I’ll give you a few reasons:

1. Lemon bars usually have at least two cups of sugar.  So..there’s enough sugar.  Why would you dust something with more sugar that is already shockingly sweet? (I’m not complaining – lemon and sugar need each other)

2. I don’t like inhaling powdered sugar with each bite.  It kind of ruins the whole eating experience to have to hack on powder.

So that’s really only two reasons.  With the right recipe, you don’t need a dusting of sugar to cover up the weird, sometimes sticky top of a lemon bar.  This recipe is so wonderful because the top gets crunchy like a creme brulee.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe because I mix up the filling while the crust is baking, so by the time the crust is ready for the filling, the filling has sat and separated a bit.  I whip it up really good, too, so maybe it’s the airy texture?  Or maybe the key is to let them cool completely before cutting and don’t cover them up if you’re not serving them right away, lest the top get soft.  That way you get that good crunch on the top, the velvety curd in the middle and the buttery crumble of the crust all together.  This is adapted from Paula Deen’s recipe, and to me, it’s the perfect lemon bar recipe.  The only one you need.

Creme Brulee Lemon Bars

Crust
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting
2 tbs lemon zest (just zest the lemons you will use for the filling)
pinch of salt
2 sticks butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing

Filling
4 eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease a 9x13x2″ pan.  Cover the bottom in parchment paper and let it hang off the sides (just along the long edge) so that you can remove it for cutting better.)
Make the crust by combining flour, confectioners’ sugar, zest and salt in a large bowl.  Cut in the butter to make a crumbly mixture.  Press the mixture into the prepared pan.  You may need to dip your fingers into a little flour or confectioners’ sugar to keep the dough from sticking to your fingers.  Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, to make the filling, mix the eggs, granulated sugar, flour, and lemon juice.  Pour this over the baked crust and bake for 25 minutes longer.  Don’t sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. Run a knife around the edges to loosen the bars, and then carefully, by the parchment overhang, lift the entire pan of bars out of the pan and transfer to a cutting board to cut.  I like to cut off the very edge of the bars so that each one will be perfectly smooth, cut, squared edges (obsessive) but that’s really up to you.  No one said you couldn’t eat the trimmings and no one would have to know they ever existed.