Among these writings was De Anima, which examined the life force in plants and animals, and it was in this book that Aristotle attempted to parse the nature of taste. He was fond of creating lists, and first and foremost on his list of tastes was sweet, which he described as pure nourishment. 
This past weekend I fulfilled one of my deeply held fall fantasies when the Greek, Elektra and I went to Sonoma County for an afternoon of apple picking. I had been wanting to do this for years, but it always seemed that before we managed to take a breath and plan something, the apple picking season would have already slipped away. This year, however, still caught in the post-dissertation glow of possibilities, I was adamant that this would not happen. A few weeks ago, we tentatively settled on Sunday and, after years of waiting, we finally made our way north.

Luckily for us, it was the ideal day to go, too. While Berkeley looked as if a dark cloak had descended upon it, Sonoma County was beautiful and sunny; it was crisp enough to wear a jacket, but warm in the many patches of sun illuminating the brightly colored leaves and the piles upon piles of fallen apples. I wanted to save them from their sad fate (even Elektra, an apple lover, snubbed the apples on the ground; when it comes to food, she’s as bit of a snooty animal, a Berkeley dog through and through) and so I just kept picking. The bags didn’t feel at all heavy, but let me just say that weight can be deceiving; it’s amazing how quickly pounds of apples can add up. Both surrounded and charmed by two different orchards bearing Fujis, Golden Delicious, Gravensteins and Roman Beauties, we managed to pick 18 (yes, eighteen) pounds of apples. Since Sunday, I feel that all I’ve been doing is trying to think up ways to get rid of them; we’ve already made several jars of a gorgeous amber-colored apple spiced jelly (the name, Fireside Apple Jelly, enticed me), a batch of applesauce and I’m about to try my hand at an apple chutney with the help of Diana Henry and her lovely Salt Sugar Smoke (recipe coming soon). After that, I hope that all I have left is enough for an apple pie or two and maybe a crisp or crumble. I may soon be appled out.

But apples aside, this weekend also resulted in the fulfillment of another fall fantasy, a gloriously smooth and creamy dessert, one that may now turn into a fall staple in my kitchen based on both its simplicity and rich flavor: Winter Squash Panna Cotta (Italian for “cooked cream”). I recently found this recipe in the dessert section of Domenica Marchett’s fabulous The Glorious Vegetables of Italy (the same book that gave me Tomato Marmalade) and I was immediately taken with the idea; not only am I a major pumpkin/squash lover, but since rejoining Full Belly Farm‘s CSA program, I’ve also been dealing with an abundance of them on a weekly basis. One week it’s Delicata that I’ll toss with za’atar or turn into this, another it’s Hubbard and a variation on these muffins, and, most recently, it was Acorn. Although they’re always wonderful roasted or turned into soup, variety is key when dealing with an onslaught of squash. And when variety comes in the shape of dessert, how could I really say no?

Although fall hardly seems the right time for a cold and creamy dessert, the simple truth is that I had long been wanting to try my hand at panna cotta. When I read My Berlin Kitchen last fall, I was really taken with the sound of a buttermilk panna cotta with berries and vowed to try it. As these things tend to go, this never happened. Then, this past spring, the panna cotta gods sent another sign my way with a recipe for panna cotta made with Greek Yogurt on Smitten Kitchen. Although I was again tempted, I continued to ignore the message the universe was sending me. Partly, I think it’s because I can go to any restaurant and order panna cotta; its simplicity makes it a staple on many restaurant menus. Another reason I think I’ve avoided panna cotta until now is that I’m desperately afraid of unmolding or inverting desserts; it’s a delicate process and the simple act of flipping something over and onto a plate had burned me before (that’s not to suggest that a “broken” cake can’t be eaten). Fortunately, I discovered that with panna cotta there was really nothing to fear. A little gelatin and adequate refrigeration can go a long way. For good measure, I also turned to an article outlining panna cotta tips in the Seattle Times; this is how I came to the wise decision to grease my ramekins and/or bowls with a neutral oil and also to dip them in hot water before unmolding them. 

The technical details of panna cotta aside, the real charm of this recipe lies in its evocation of a creamy and crustless pumpkin pie, but one that goes fairly easy on the spices. While they’re certainly there for the tasting, the ingredient that really shines here is the squash. Given the recipe’s origins, it seems only fitting that the vegetable should be given center stage. 
As a panna cotta novice, I decided to follow the recipe almost to the letter (the few changes I made were inspired by the Seattle Times article I mentioned earlier), but now that I’ve had a successful run, I think that when I make this again (maybe for Thanksgiving?) I might reduce both the cream and the sugar (2 cups cream and 1 cup milk might work beautifully and, given the sweetness of the squash, 1/2 cup might serve just as well as 2/3).  That being said, the panna cotta wasn’t overly sweet and, even better, it seemed to jiggle in just the soft and subtle way that panna cotta should. 

Winter Squash Panna Cotta

Yields 7-8 servings (depending on the size of your ramekins or bowls)
Slightly adapted from Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Vegetables of Italy

In her book, Domenica suggests that you make the winter squash puree out of either Buttercup, Autumn Cup, Bon Bon or Kabocha. She doesn’t mention Acorn squash, which is the squash that I used in this recipe. My guess is that it’s not as rich in beta-carotene as the others, which is why my panna cotta is only a light shade of orange instead of a more vibrant one. Color aside, using Acorn squash doesn’t make the flavor suffer.
          Another thing about the squash is that, while the recipe works beautifully as written, I think that the squash might benefit from either a food processor or food mill. While I didn’t have a problem with the texture and neither did the Greek, the truth is that squash can be stringy and if you’re not extra careful about pureeing it, you might leave some of its stringier bits in the puree. Let’s all agree that stringy is not an adjective that one wants to associate with panna cotta. 
         My final recipe note refers to the chilling time. The recipe suggests a range of time: from 3 hours to overnight. My feeling is that it’s better to let them rest overnight; I unmolded two of the panna cottas after our apple picking adventure (about 8 hours after first putting them in the fridge) and while they were solid enough, they were also a little looser than I would have liked; clearly, they would have benefited from more chilling time. The panna cotta that I unmolded the next day were perfectly set, so I highly recommend that you give them enough time to chill properly.

For the Roasted Winter Squash Puree:

1 winter squash (buttercup, autumn cup, bon bon, kabocha or acorn)
1 tbsp olive oil

-Preheat oven to 375 F.
-Split the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Reserve for roasting.
-Rub the flesh of the squash with a small amount of oil and set the halves, cut-side down, on a rimmed baking sheet.
-Bake for 45-60 minutes (my acorn squash was ready in 45), then remove from the oven and let cool.
-Scoop the flesh into a bowl and discard the rind (it will come right off).
-Using a fork or a potato masher, mash the roasted squash into a smooth puree.
-If not using immediately, store in a covered container and refrigerate for up to five days or freeze for 3 months.

For the panna cotta:

3 cups (720 ml) heavy cream
2/3 cup (130 g) sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg
one 1/4 ounce (7 g) envelope unflavored gelatin
1 cup (225 g) roasted winter squash puree
4 ounces (115 g) mascarpone cheese, softened to room temperature

-Using a neutral oil, lightly grease the ramekins and/or bowls. 
-Combine the cream and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan.
-Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the mixture and then add the pod.
-Whisk in the spices.
-Stirring often, cook over medium heat for 7 minutes, or until the mixture is almost simmering.
-Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 20 minutes.
-In the meantime, pour 3 tablespoons cold water into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand for 5 minutes.
-Fold together the squash puree and mascarpone in a large bowl.
-Uncover the cream mixture and, after removing the vanilla bean pod, bring it to just a simmer over medium heat.
-Gently whisk in the gelatin mixture, stirring until it is completely dissolved. To make sure of this, dip a spoon into the mixture and test its texture by rubbing it between your fingers. If it is grainy, keep stirring. If not, it’s ready.
-Remove from heat and let cool for about 5 minutes.
-Then, slowly pour the cream mixture into the squash puree and mascarpone, whisking both gently and constantly.
-Pour the panna cotta into the lightly greased bowls, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate from up to three hours to overnight (for best results, I think it is best to let them set overnight).
-To serve, using a small butter knife, gently go around the edges of the bowls of the set panna cotta, then gently dip them into just boiled water. Invert the bowls onto small dessert plates and shake gently. The panna cotta should come right out. If not, dip it into the hot water again and repeat the process. If you don’t want to unmold the panna cotta, just eat it out of the bowl.
-For a pretty seasonal touch, using a small cookie or pie cutter, lightly press down on the top of the panna cotta.

6 thoughts on “A Fall Fantasy

  1. Were you near Sebastopol…? The way to the cello camp goes through apple-picking territory… It looks like a fall idyll, to be sure! and all the more so for stocking your cupboards with apple products for the winter… You look very happy! — and Elektra looks like a purposeful apple-truffle-hound…

  2. Aly, hello! Yes, we were very close to Sebastopol, home of restorative pleasures (in addition to the cello camp, it was quite close to the place I had gone to the yoga retreat a few years back). And thanks for observing my happiness; everybody who sees me these days tells me I look very light and free…What can I say? It's the post-dissertation glow (it may be better than pregnancy; let me clarify that it's not as if I know anything about that).
    And let the apple products keep on coming; one of the drawers of the fridge is currently full of apples and it's my mission in life to empty it. 🙂

  3. There is so much I love about this post: the bliss of this post-diss era, which fulfilled a long-held dream for you; the glory of fall and its abundance (I haven't gone apple picking since I was a very young girl and it was magical); a sunny day trip from Berkeley; the unmatchable deliciousness of a creamy dessert; your photos — especially the one of you; the adorable pumpkin designs you decorated with; and most of all, a unique dessert made from an veggie not common in desserts! Hooray all around!

  4. Thank you, Moriah, for your lovely comment! I must admit that I thought of you as I was making this; I knew you would appreciate the addition of roasted winter squash to panna cotta! In fact, I think you would probably like this book in general; it's really beautiful and informative.

    I'm all for apple picking in the Bay Area; perhaps next year you might make a trip north yourself…? Just think of all the wonderful things you'd dream up for apples. 🙂

  5. Ah, amazing! I am envious f your apple picking and your delicious dessert! The closest apple picking here is several hours away…but maybe next year! Hurray for cool weather, and those are adorable pumpkin outlines:)

  6. It was definitely a good time and I would do it again, although it took weeks (and I mean *weeks*) to get rid of all the apples (truth be told, we may even still have a few floating around in the crisper). But there has been pie and preserving and lots of apply goodness, so I can't complain too much. 🙂

    Thanks for the outline love; I saw those at Williams-Sonoma and I couldn't resist. You know, for all my fall baking needs. 🙂

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