Friday, April 4, 2008

Hotel Bread Pudding and Panna Cotta

As I worked on my hotel cheesecakes, I started to think to myself, there has got to be an easier high-end dessert to cook in a hotel room than cheesecake. Then it hit me: panna cotta! Would could be easier? What could be simpler? And bonus: it didn't technically require a microwave, though it did still require a chilling mechanism such as a mini-fridge.

Panna cotta is, so I've read, Italian for "cooked cream". You may see complex recipes everywhere, but when it really comes down to it, panna cotta really only has three main ingredients: cream, sugar and gelatin. This of course excludes vanilla or other flavoring agents. Looking at a handful of recipes, I found that the majority of the reliable ones called for equal parts cream and whole milk. If you're thinking what I'm thinking, you're thinking it's tons easier to just use half and half. Unflavored gelatin isn't too difficult to find at the grocery store, and most hotels seem to have one of those within reasonable distance. As for sugar? That's what the coffee bar is really for, right? I would have to figure out the flavoring later.

I picked up the ingredients at the store one morning before class, fully intending to whip up a serving that night. As I sat at my desk waiting for students to arrive, I eyeballed the pastries that catering had brought to us, most of which I knew my students would promptly ignore. As I considered them, a random thought occurred to me: I bet those would make a great bread pudding! Bread pudding consists of little more than bread that's been sitting out all day or night, some dairy, eggs, and maybe some seasonings or flavorings. Since these were pastries, they were already plenty flavorful, they just needed a custard to pull them together. Bonus: I would already have both eggs and dairy left over from the cheesecake and panna cotta experiments.

That night, I started on the bread pudding first. My bread ended up consisting of two muffins, which were cubed with a plastic knife. Using a fork, I mixed together an egg with what looked like about 1/3 to 1/2 a cup of half and half, in the paper bowl that I planned to use for cooking. I tossed the cubed muffins in the bowl, tossed until it looked like the wet stuff was evenly soaked through, and tossed into the microwave on the lowest power setting. I only went with 2 to 3 minute spurts, but all in all it took me about 17 to 18 minutes of cooking time before it looked like it was done. I removed it from the microwave and set aside to cool.

While it was cooling, I sprinkled about half a packet of unflavored gelatin into a couple of tablespoons worth of cold water. I filled a mug from the coffee station with most of the remaining half and half and tossed it in the microwave on high. A couple of minutes later it was hot, definitely at a scald, but not boiling. I added the gelatin to a bowl, poured in the hot cream and added about six packets worth of sugar from the coffee station. For flavoring, I added a little container of "Mixed Fruit Jelly" swiped from the bagel station at breakfast. It wasn't vanilla, but it was something. I stirred until it looked like everything was more or less dissolved (except for little pieces of jelly) and set aside to cool. When it was down to room temperature, I moved it into the mini fridge to set up.

The bread pudding cooled down pretty quickly. It may not have been the best bread pudding in the world, but it was still pretty good. Of course, the biggest factor in this case was the quality of the pastries that I used to make it, and they were pretty good pastries. But the cooking method also seemed solid, and I ended up wolfing down the whole thing.

The next day I tried out the panna cotta. It set up perfectly. It was easy to remove from its bowl and onto a plate. Apparently not all of the jelly dissolved into it, and it ended up having what looked like a pocked surface. Nothing a few fresh-sliced strawberries also swiped from the breakfast bar wouldn't fix. If they had had strawberry jelly or jam instead of just grape left, I could have used that to make a sauce too.

As far as the flavor and texture were concerned, it was by far not the best I've ever had. Rather than being a light, creamy dessert, it tasted like milk-flavored jello with perhaps a little too much gelatin. More gummy than jello. Obviously, the finer qualities of panna cotta have managed to elude me. At the very least, I was a little heavy handed with the powdered gelatin. I probably need to invest in some real vanilla extra next time around too. Fortunately, they do sell it in sizes that the TSA will permit in my carry-on luggage.

At the very least, the bread pudding can be called a success. The panna cotta is not too far behind. Both definitely have room for improvement. I couldn't help but notice that a lot of bread pudding recipes call for things like nuts and dried fruits. Not a bad idea. I also noticed that a lot of panna cotta recipes call for sour cream. That would certainly help with flavor and texture. It makes me wonder if I can get away with using cream cheese. I suppose there are more experiments to be had.

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