I have been now living in Finland for almost two years and being trying to adapt myself to a completely new life, I can say things are going generally well. There are some things I will probably never able to live with, like the indecently early wake up and meal times, but many others, for example the no-nonsense approach to practical issues of the daily living, are just up my street. Therefore I thought it was the time to “celebrate” our Italian-Finnish household with something special, that’s how I came up with this dessert.
The Italian part was pretty easy to choose: panna cotta is one of my favourite Italian dessert. I know that many of my country mate will now think that I have gone mad, but it is my opinion that Italians and southern Europeans in general (with of course the exception of France) do not do sweets as well as the countries up North, cakes and pastry in particular. Maybe it is the hot temperature, maybe we just focus more on savoury, maybe we are a bit less patient and disciplined, two qualities really necessary in pastry making. I really cannot pin down the reason but, I wrote it in the past, to learn how to make proper sweets I think one has to look somewhere else. Despite this, Italian cuisine has a couple of gems in the dessert department that cannot really be dismissed: one is Tiramisu’ (with a bit of patience one day we will get there too 🙂 ) and panna cotta. Panna cotta is the ultimate example of simplicity at its best; extra flavourings apart, it’s made of 3 ingredients, cream, sugar and gelatin and even on its own, if done properly, is one of the most delicious thing that man has created. Plus it has the great quality of acting as blank (in all the meanings of the word) canvas to which one can add the most classic or unusual ingredients. Vanilla is the first that comes to mind, but did you ever try saffron? If not, you should. I normally make panna cotta on its own maybe with a fruit or chocolate sauce, but this time I decided to make it the main part of my Italian-Finnish dessert so, simple vanilla had to be. The Italian bit has then be completed with a little pistachio crumble, that gives a nice crunch and extra sweetness for the real flavour hit of this dish, the Finnish component, rhubarb.
Rhubarb is by a long mile my favourite fruit ingredient for baking and dessert. Apples, pears citrus fruit yes of course are great, but rhubarb is on a whole level of its own. Rhubarb is not necessarily typical Finnish, but the cold and wet weather makes this country a good place where to grow it and now that we have space in the garden, Rhubarb has been the first thing to be planted. This year the yield has not been great, but I still managed to get a couple of good desserts out of it, this one included. Apart from the amazing taste, sweet, sharp, deep, and the lovely pink colour, I am particularly keen on rhubarb as it is my Finnish summer saviour. In a country where from May to September the only thing that people seems to want to eat is berries, going through summer is fairly tricky for a berry hater like me. They are literally everywhere you can buy them pretty much in any street corner, so one cannot really forget that they exist. You go out for a meal, you look at the dessert list and not only berries are everywhere but even if the description of the dish does not give the faintest hint of their presence, you can be sure that a mountain of blueberries, currants etc… will be used to decorate, smother, enrich the plate, regardless of whether they go with the rest of the dish or not. Being aware of that, I always make sure to ask in advance that no sign of berries can be found on my plate but I at the reaction of the waiter/waitress I inevitably end up regretting not having skipped dessert: in the best case scenario a look of compassion for missing this wonder of nature, in the worst a frown of disapproval for spoiling the chef’s berries bonanza. Let’s face it, berries in summer here are used more as a seasoning than an ingredient. BUT, there is a big but, Finnish seems to have a quite good love affair going on with Rhubarb too, and it’s with it that I can therefore redeem myself. In this and in many other senses it is the perfect ingredient for the Finnish part of this dessert. The compote will come out extremely sharp and fresh, apparently not so sharp though that my 6 months old would say no to it (!?!), and the addition of some cardamom, another of the Finnish favourite ingredients in sweets, makes it even more interesting.
I can try this dish as a whole but if not, don’t look at it like something that has to be necessarily reproduced exactly as it is. I think that the three components goes perfectly together but they can also be used individually with other sweets and my hope is that it will inspire you at least try something of this kind.
Have a good Sunday!
For the Panna cotta:
200gr (or to taste) caster sugar
3 tsp powder gelatin
2 vanilla sticks
For the Rhubarb compote:
6-7 medium-large stalks of Rhubarb
3 tbs brown sugar
For the Pistachio crumble:
200gr plain flour
100gr icing sugar
150gr ground pistachio
A pinch of salt
A couple of tbs of cold water
Prepare the panna cotta first. Put the cream in a pan , dissolve the sugar and add the content of the vanilla sticks and the two opened sticks. Bring to boil making sure the fire is put off immediately (do not over boil). In the meantime dissolve the gelatin a little milk. When the cream is ready, sieve the vanilla stick off and add the gelatin to the cream by whisking (do not add cream to the gelatin but the opposite). Place the cream in a bowl and the bowl in a cold water bath and let cool by whisking every few minutes until the mixture is cold a slightly thick. Pour into a mould and place in the fridge to set ideally overnight.
For the Rhubarb compote cut the rhubarb in pieces and place in a sauce pan with the other ingredients, cook until the mixture has a jam consistence, if too dry add a little water.
For the crumble mix flour, sugar, pistachio and salt, add the butter in cubes and work it into the dry ingredients to obtain a sandy mixture. Add the water to get the texture become more rough and similar to crumbs. Bake in the oven at 180°C for 20-25 minutes or until dry and golden.
When the panna cotta is set and the other components cold you can build your dessert and serve.