I have an Earth Day story to share today. Back in 1992, I attended an Earth Day event at which I learned about the environmental damage caused by large animal feedlots and how consumption of beef and pork was rising sharply around the world. I wanted to do something and put my money where my mouth was literally I suppose, so it was then and there that I decided to stop eating red meat. And, what does that have to do with panna cotta? Well, even though I had stopped eating red meat, I continued to use gelatin which is made from collagen extracted from cattle and pigs, and gelatin is needed for dishes like panna cotta. I had read about other gelling agents, but hadn't tried any other alternatives until now. For Earth Day, and to learn something new, I decided to experiment with agar agar powder which is a natural substance derived from red algae.
Also, in celebration of Earth Day, I had just received a basket full of samples from the Central Market Organics line. I've shopped at Central Market since the first-ever store opened in Austin, and I bring home items from the Organics line every week. I was thrilled to receive this basket of samples which included organic rice milk, organic coffee, organic peanut butter dots breakfast cereal, and organic agave syrup, in addition to organic almond milk, strawberry preserves, oatmeal, and tea. My plan for this panna cotta came together when I saw the rice milk, coffee, and peanut butter dots. Maybe I should explain the peanut butter part of that. I've been hooked on the mix of flavors of coffee and peanut butter since my first peanut butter espresso milkshake years ago. Add a banana, and it's even better. And, since I remembered seeing a dessert in the book Delicious Days which involved a layer of gelled Kahlua on top of a coffee-flavored panna cotta, my idea was to re-create that in a completely vegetarian incarnation and top it with crushed peanut butter dots cereal for added flavor and texture.
After reading up on using agar agar, I realized this might require some testing and tweaking. I found a recipe online for a vegan panna cotta made with coconut milk and soy yogurt. I didn't want to add coconut to the mix of flavors I had in mind, so I tried this recipe with rice milk instead. After pulling ideas from the Delicious Days recipe, I simmered rice milk, agave syrup, seeds from a vanilla bean, and crushed coffee beans with agar agar powder. The mixture was simmered and strained into a bowl, and soy yogurt was whisked into it. It's necessary to cook agar agar for it to dissolve, but it will set up at room temperature if necessary. Also, it sets up very firm, so less is better. The general ratio is two teaspoons of agar agar powder to two cups of liquid, but I found the result of that to be too rigid. I wanted the panna cotta to have a little wobble. I also found my first experiment to be a little too virtuous. There was no richness, and the coffee and vanilla flavors seemed flat in the finished dessert. So, I decided this wasn't going to be vegan but just vegetarian. I tried again with the same initial process of simmering rice milk with agave syrup, vanilla seeds, crushed coffee beans, and a little less agar agar powder. Then, I poured that through a sieve into a bowl and whisked in cream. One taste before it was even set and I knew this was going to be a winner. I poured the mixture into ramekins and placed them in the refrigerator for an hour. The next step, also taken from the Delicious Days recipe, was to simmer some Kahlua with agar agar powder and then pour that over the set panna cotta in the ramekins. After they had chilled and the Kahlua layer had set, I turned out the desserts onto plates and sprinkled crushed organic peanut butter dots cereal on top.
Working with agar agar does take a little getting used to, but it's completely flavorless and dissolves once simmered. Depending on the texture you want, it might require some testing. I'm happy to have learned to use a vegetarian alternative to gelatin though, and I can't wait to try it in homemade marshmallows. As for the flavor of the final dessert, I was delighted. The coffee and vanilla with a little richness from cream was divine especially with the sweet liqueur of the gelled Kahlua layer. I always like a mix of textures too, so the crunch of the organic peanut butter cereal worked well and reminded me of those incredible milkshakes. I hope you find a delicious way to celebrate Earth Day too.
Vegetarian Coffee Power Panna Cotta
(adapted from Enlightened Cooking and Delicious Days)
1 1/4 cup organic rice milk
1/4 cup organic agave syrup
1 1/2 teaspoon agar agar powder
seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
3 tablespoons coffee beans, crushed so that they can be sieved out without leaving graininess behind
1 c cream
1/2 cup Kahlua
3/8 teaspoon agar agar powder (I realize that's an odd measurement, but 1/2 teaspoon is a little too much.)
1/4 cup crushed organic peanut butter dots cereal
-Place rice milk, agave syrup, 1 1/2 teaspoons agar agar powder, vanilla seeds, and crushed coffee beans in a medium saucepan and stir to combine. Let sit for a few minutes before bringing to a simmer. Simmer while stirring occasionially for about eight minutes.
-Pour rice milk mixture through a sieve into a heat-proof measuring pitcher. Add cream and whisk to combine. Divide evenly between four six ounce ramekins and place ramekins in the refrigerator for one hour.
-For the Kahlua gelee layer, place Kahlua and 3/8 teaspoon agar agar powder in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer while stirring. Simmer and stir until agar agar has dissolved. Carefully pour or spoon Kahlua on top of set panna cotta in ramekins. Let ramekins chill again for at least one hour.
-To serve, place hot tap water in a wide bowl. Dip bottoms of ramekins into hot water for about 15 seconds. Then, use a pairing knife to loosen edges of panna cotta all around the ramekin. Invert ramekin over a plate and use the knife to pull out the panna cotta if necessary. Top with crushed peanut butter dots cereal.