Blueberry and Lilac Syrup Panna Cotta

When we first moved into the building that is now our home and atelier in northern France, it had been consumed by nature. Once the local café, the heart of social activity in a small mining village, it had been left abandoned and forgotten for almost 20 years. There was two inches of mud covering all of the floors, the windows had rotted away and the grounds had turned to jungle. We spent months removing the mud, cleaning the brick walls and cutting back foliage. There was so much overgrowth that upon our first visit we were surprised to find a second building on site that was not much smaller than the main building. It had been concealed by vines, trees and 20 years of moss growth. We ‘got the keys’ in a February, which is a symbolic phrase in this instance, as the front door had been left ajar for nearly as long as the building had been abandoned. One day, after months of cleaning and tidying we wandered into the garden and were overwhelmed by sight and smell. The entire planted front of our property was a vibrant purple blaze of blooming lilac. We had noticed the trees while clearing and decided to leave them not knowing what they were. We are so glad that we did. Over the years, we preserved the new shoots that spurt up from the undergrowth and now have a thick lilac forest in the garden. The bloom happens in May. The small flowers are perfect for about a week but then start to degrade soon after. The window for dining with fresh lilacs is small but greatly anticipated in our house.

Lilac has an appetizing smell, it is intoxicating, delicious and a wonderful, subtle floral flavor to add to sweet food. I make it into a simple syrup and use it in deserts, gelato and as a cordial after a long hot summer’s day in the garden. A couple of months ago I was browsing the internet and came across the website of Vincent Guiheneuf. He had made an exquisite blueberry and violet panna cotta with white chocolate and meringueI was captivated by the colour of the panna cotta. It immediately reminded me of my lilacs, so I decided to try it by substituting his violet syrup for my lilac syrup.

Making lilac syrup can give you all sorts of colour results but I find that I get a purple syrup if I use the darkest purple lilac flowers, within a day or two of them blooming. The warmer and sunnier it is, the quicker the lilacs begin to fade. The lighter the lilac, the less pigment available to colour the syrup. Of course, in a dish like this, the colour of the syrup becomes irrelevant. The blueberries do all of the work in creating this magical colour.

I serve this dish with a white chocolate ganache, typically in a small pouring vessel so that guests can manage their own serving. This is officially my favorite desert. The flavours are incredible. The texture divine. It is a show stopping desert. Guests will relish with delight at the plate laid before them.

I recommend that you make each element in the order that I have written them.

Ingredients

For the lilac syrup

  • 1 cup of lilac flowers – pushed in to the cup but not crushed and compacted
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup water

For the panna cotta – makes two panna cottas as shown in the photos

  • 3 grams of gelatin sheet – see note at bottom of page
  • 200 ml cream full cream
  • 80 grams blueberries
  • 30 grams lilac syrup
  • 40 grams white sugar

For the blueberry coulis

  • 100 grams fresh blueberries
  • 30 grams white sugar
  • 10 ml lemon juice

For the white chocolate ganache

  • 60 grams full cream
  • 100 grams white chocolate

For plating

  • 5-8 blueberries per plate
  • A small handful of lilac flowers

Method

For the lilac syrup

Remove the individual lilac flowers from their stem. Be sure to only take the purple flowers, discard all brown flowers and green stems. Wash lilac flowers.

Place flowers, sugar and water in a saucepan. On medium heat, bring to a simmer and continue to simmer for 10 mins. Remove from heat and strain through a wire strainer. Use the back of a metal spoon to push as much colour and flavor out of the flowers as possible.

Allow syrup to cool to room temperature then refrigerate. Can be made a week in advance.

 

For the panna cotta

Place gelatin sheets in enough cold water to cover the sheets. If you haven’t used them before, don’t worry about the gelatin sheets dissolving, they will hold together as a sheet in the cold water but will become floppy.

Place cream, blueberries, lilac syrup and sugar in a saucepan. Over medium heat bring to almost a simmer. When you start seeing bubbles remove from heat and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Return to medium heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Take gelatin sheets from water and shake off excess water. Add to hot cream and gently stir until dissolved and well incorporated.

Strain the panna cotta mixture through a wire strainer. Pour into moulds and cool to room temperature uncovered. This will take at least an hour. Once at room temperature, cover and place in the fridge over night. Can be made a couple of days in advance.

 

For the blueberry coulis

Make the blueberry coulis on the day of serving. Add blueberries, sugar and lemon juice to a saucepan and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer and simmer until the coulis has thickened. Similar to the consistency of traditional jam but not dry.

Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.

 

For the ganache

Chop the chocolate into small pieces or shavings and place in a clean bowl. Set aside.

Put cream into a small saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer. Don’t take your eyes off it. Cream tends to boil over very quickly. Remove from heat and whisk it into the white chocolate. Keep whisking until the chocolate has completely dissolved and you have a smooth ganache. Pour into a small pouring vessel. Individual vessels per guest are thoughtful but if in a shared vessel, the fight over the remaining ganache can make things fun.

In terms of timing during dining, make the ganache as close as possible to serving. I put the saucepan with the cream in the fridge and I leave the shaved chocolate in the bowl at room temperature ready and waiting. When the main course is finished, I quickly make the ganache and pour it into the serving vessel. Then I plate the panna cotta.

 

Plating

Make sure that your utensils, plates and all ingredients are cool to room temperature. Putting anything warm on or under the panna cotta will melt it. Wash the fresh lilac flowers and blueberries and lay them on a towel to dry.

To remove the panna cotta from the moulds, take a sharp knife. Holding the panna cotta on its side, place the point of the knife between the inside of the mould and the panna cotta. Push the knife in slowly being careful not to pierce the panna cotta. The weight of the panna cotta will start to pull it away from the edges of the mould, let gravity help you. Once it starts to peel away, begin to roll the mould progressively until it peels completely from the edges. Place the plate against the opening of the mould while still on its side, precisely where you would like the panna cotta to be on the plate then turn the mould upside down with the plate underneath. Just as you would turn out a jelly. If you are having trouble getting them out you can quickly dip the bottom of the mould into very hot water, be careful not to allow any water into the panna cotta.

Using a small spoon, place some of the coulis on top of each panna cotta. Using the back of the spoon, carefully spread the coulis to the edge of the panna cotta.

Decorate each plate with blueberries and flowers. I often slice the bottom third off of one of the blueberries so that it looks submerged into the top of the panna cotta.

Don’t forget to put the ganache on the table!

….. Voila!

A note on gelatin: A great panna cotta has the quintessential ‘belly’. The less gelatin, the more ‘belly’ but also the higher the risk of the panna cotta collapsing or melting. If you are dining in a hot environment or if this is your first panna cotta, then use 3g of gelatin. As you gain experience in making panna cotta, you can reduce the gelatin to 2g. This recipe has been tested with as little as 1.6g of gelatin which produces an absolutely delightful texture and the plumpest ‘belly’. In the photographs I have used 3g of gelatin in order to buy time for styling and photography. For entertaining, I make it with 2g. This has proven to be manageable when plating up for a number of guests but also achieves the highly desirable panna cotta ‘belly’.

A note on the ganache: If you would like the ganache thinner, add more hot cream. If you would like it thicker add more shaved chocolate.

Homemade Water Crackers

Growing up, some evenings, my mum would prepare a cheese plate and there would always be a collective buzz of excitement when she’d call out cheese and bikkies! We were kids, so it was a fairly simple plate but there would always be some firm favorites: a super sharp cheddar, sliced pickles and several handfuls of Carr’s water crackers carefully laid out like fallen dominos. We’d hover around the table grazing while chatting. It was a comforting time of the day. These days we have apéro which is the short name for apéritif, the pre-dinner drinks usually accompanied by lots of French cheese, cured meats and, of course, crackers. It is a wonderful social occasion to enjoy with friends and family but it can also provide a mellow interlude before evening meal preparation.

When I became an expat, there was obviously never a shortage of cheese but it was difficult to find a suitable alternative to our favored Carr’s water crackers. In Northern France, you can find them every now and then in the quintessential British products section of the supermarket, but not in ours. So, to satisfy our cracker needs and to accompany l’apéro I started to make my own. They are quick to prepare once you get the hang of them, and even more so if you have a pasta maker. I make them 20 minutes or so before apéro and always try to make enough to carry over to the next day. They are also great with soup, lentils, dips and spreads like Greek fava, tapenade or melitzanoasalata (Greek grilled aubergine spread).

I quantify the recipe as you would fresh pasta: 100g of flour for each person. So for each person attending I make the following:

Ingredients:

100g flour
¼ teaspoon bicarb soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ tablespoon olive oil
⅛ teaspoon vinegar. White vinegar is a good basic choice but other vinegars can give a slightly different outcome. For example, apple cider vinegar gives a sweeter aroma but doesn’t change the taste.
3½ tablespoons water
Extra water for brushing

Preparation:

Into a medium mixing bowl, sift flour, bicarb soda and salt. This will be referred to as the flour mix.

Into a glass or small bowl, combine vinegar and water. This will be referred to as the water mix.

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (356ºF). Fan-forced is beneficial.

Prepare at least 2 un-greased baking sheets and cover each with baking paper.

Method:

Add olive oil to the flour mix and rub with your fingers. Make sure that the olive oil is well combined and that no large balls remain.

Add the water mix to the flour mix. Mix together with your fingers until the mixture forms a ball. If it feels a little dry, add a splash more water. If it seems sticky, wait a minute or two, dough can take a moment to absorb moisture. If it stays sticky, sprinkle some flour over the ball and work it in. Do not knead the dough, just manipulate it enough for the ingredients to combine.

If making by hand, roll out the dough using a rolling pin, folding it on itself and rolling it out at least four times. This will create the fine layers that you see in commercially made water crackers.

If using a pasta maker, start on the thickest setting. Pass through a small piece of dough at a time. Fold it on itself each time you pass it through the machine. Move your way through the thickness settings as you would when making pasta. I have an Imperia machine and I roll up to and including the second thinnest setting. The finest setting is far too thin. For your first batch it is a good idea to test a couple of thicknesses so that you can evaluate which you prefer.

In regards to shape, you can bake large pieces that can be broken up at the table or pre-cut them to size. For this post I made long rustic crackers and circular ones using a cookie cutter.

Lay the crackers out on the prepared trays. Using a fork, prick the crackers all over. The more holes, the flatter the cracker. The fewer holes the larger the air bubbles.

Using a pastry brush, coat the top of every cracker with water.

Bake for 12-15 minutes until bubbles start to get a golden brown colour.

If you find that your test batch is slightly chewy, bake the next batch for a minute or two longer. It simply means that they’ve retained a little moisture.

Let cool and store in an air-tight container.

Bon apéro!

Photo 2 cheeses: Tomette de Brebis des Pyrénées raw sheep’s milk. Tomme Savoie raw cow’s milk. Petite Camembert pasteurised cow’s milk. Photo 4 cheeses: Chabichou du Poitou raw goat’s milk. Brie de Meaux 1/2 affine, raw cow’s milk. Morbier 70 days, raw cow’s milk. Photo 4 CROP linen napkins: in Flax & in Natural colours. 

Kourabiethes, a Greek butter-biscuit

Most countries have a sweet treat or delicacy that appears only for the holiday season. In France, at least in our region there is a surprising array of beautifully packaged, jarred, boxed or wrapped luxury savory foods like foie gras and pâté. And although our regular cheese selection is bountiful, at Christmas time, the frommageries burst with beautiful, tiny cheeses for entertaining, making hampers and giving as gifts. These are glorious little artisanal creations that fit in the palm of your hand, sometimes covered in dried flower petals or finely diced dried fruit. In Greece, at Christmas time, that perfect little holiday season morsel is known as the Kourabie, pronounced: kou-ra-be-eh. Kourabiethes (plural) are light, delectable shortbread-like biscuits covered in confectioner’s sugar, sold by weight and made in Greek kitchens all over the world. Like all traditional recipes, they vary slightly in texture and flavour with some Greek cooks using different butters depending on their region, including but not limited to buffalo milk butter, goat milk butter, sheep milk butter or regular cow’s milk butter. Some also use finely sliced and roasted almonds for texture and some add a splash of scotch whiskey for aroma. But the key to the perfect Kourabie is using a high quality butter and beating it, very very well. This produces a very light, melt-in-your-mouth biscuit.

If you are new to kourabiethes, there are a few things that I can tell you that will aid you in experimentation and personalisation. To assist the sugar in sticking, each kourabie is lightly sprayed or brushed with water and then rolled in and covered with confectioner’s sugar. After a short while, the sugar soaks in the water creating a fine icing shell in-between the biscuit and the fluffy sugar outer. This shell not only creates a light structure for the delicate biscuits but also, I believe, increases its shelf-life. To make the ingredients easier to procure, I have specified water but I myself and many Greek cooks use rose water or orange blossom water to add a fresh Eastern flavour. There’s plenty of room for personalisation here. One could experiment with flavour-filled infusions in place of the rose water or spice the confectioner’s sugar by adding crushed clove or cinnamon. In Greece, kourabiethes are usually found either shaped as a ball or a crescent moon. I find the ball to be less fuss and much faster to form. Due to the high butter content, it is imperative to work as quickly as possible to ensure that the butter doesn’t melt. Any novice would be forgiven for thinking that the little powdery snowballs are sturdy, they certainly feel it in the hand, but they crumble at the slightest amount of pressure. So, a single bite size is good for most. Especially children. The biscuits in the photographs are four-bite size. If your room is warm, you can rest your bowl in a cold bain-marie to keep the dough cool. I myself keep the baking tray away from warm appliances, i.e. the cooking range, before preparing the biscuits and while laying them out for baking. Store the kourabiethes as you would loukoumi (turkish delight), buried in confectioner’s sugar. They are fabulous gifts for «drop by for tea» invitations and fun to box, wrap and package.

Ingredients:
250g butter at room temperature
2 egg yolks
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar + 3-4 cups for dusting and storing.
2 pinches baking soda (about 1/16 of a teaspoon)
2 cups flour (I use T45 but all purpose flour will be fine)
½ cup almond meal
Pinch of salt
Coating water (plain water, rose water or orange blossom water)

Preparation:

In a medium to large mixing bowl, place the room temperature butter, egg yolks, ¼ cup of sifted confectioners sugar and sifted baking soda. This will be referred to as the butter mix.

Into a second bowl, sift flour, almond meal and salt. When you get to the larger pieces of almond meal, you can break them up and tip them into the mix. This will be referred to as the flour mix.

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (356ºF)

Prepare an un-greased cookie sheet and cover it with a sheet of baking paper.

Method:

Using an electric mixer set on medium speed, beat the butter mix until smooth and creamy. I know that it is ready when it is light in color and has lines and ripples in the surface. It can take up to 20 minutes to achieve this. Do not hurry this key step.

With the electric mixer set on low speed, slowly add the flour mix at a rate of ¼ cup at a time, until beaten in. Once all of the ingredients have been incorporated, if you find the dough to be too sticky to handle, you can sift in small amounts of flour until it is no longer so.

Take small pieces of dough, the size of an un-shelled walnut, and shape into a ball. Place on the baking-paper-covered cookie sheet 1 to 2 inches apart. They will not spread much.

Bake for 18-20 minutes but keep an eye on them. You want them to have a light golden color, not a golden brown color which would indicate they dried out too much. I advise a single-biscuit test to evaluate best cooking time.

Once baked, slide the baking paper from the baking tray onto another cool tray, being very gentle in your movements. While the butter is hot the biscuits are extremely delicate. Let them cool completely before the final step.

Take a baking pan, large enough to fit all of your kourabiethes, and cover the bottom in a generous layer of confectioner’s sugar. You want to ensure that you cannot see the bottom of the pan through the sugar. Once the biscuits are completely cool, using a spray atomizer or brush, lightly and evenly coat a single biscuit with the coating water you chose. If dripping, gently dry off with a paper towel. Place the biscuit on the sugar coated tray and generously sift confectioners sugar over the damp biscuit ensuring that it is completely covered. It can build up on the sides. Repeat one biscuit at a time until they are all sugar coated. You can store the biscuits in this pan until ready to serve.

We often eat them straight out of the storage tray but if I plan to present them to guests or give them as a gift, I do as follows. I take each kourabie out of the storage pan and gently dust them off to reveal the round shape. With a small strainer or a sifter I sprinkle it with fresh sugar while balancing it in my hand. Finally, I dust a little more sugar once on the serving plate.

Makes 16-20 kourabiethes.

Photo 4: CROP linen Azuma in Natural colour.

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