Fresh food. Simple and seasonal. Mostly Mediterranean.

Beyond Shortcake: Competition Tests Creativity



As a judge at the recent annual Strawberry Dessert Contest at Verrill Farm in Concord, Mass., I had a tough task: choosing with my fellow judges a winning entry among seven beautiful and tasty desserts -- all made by kids. (We also judged adult entries, of which only three were submitted.) For about an hour before judging time, eager and ernest contestants presented their creations to our team of five judges -- members of the Culinary Guild of New England, and we tried our best to show equal enthusiasm for each platter of cupcakes, cookies, and custard. As the deadline loomed, we gathered our tasting spoons, palate-cleansing glasses of water, and grading sheets. Contestants, their family and friends, and other onlookers swarmed our table. We picked up our tiny tasting spoons and got to work, tasting and ranking each dessert on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the top score, in three different categories: creativity, presentation, and taste. Some desserts looked gorgeous but lacked imagination; others appeared ho-hum but burst with flavor. After sampling each one and pensively considering each category, the mathematician among us tallied up the scores, and the suspense mounted.... Alas, one dessert towered above the rest: a silky smooth Buttermilk Strawberry Panna Cotta garnished with fresh basil and macerated fresh strawberries. It was not only pretty but also delectably sweet-tasting. And most impressive of all, the Strawberry Buttermilk Panna Cotta was made by a 10-year-old. Bravo, Rachel T.!

Strawberry Buttermilk Panna Cotta

1. Puree the strawberries in a small food processor.

2. Strain pureed strawberries through a fine-meshed sieve into a small bowl.

3. Sprinkle the puree evenly with the powdered gelatin (you want the puree to be cold in order for the gelatin to bloom properly), and allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, place the cream and sugar in a small saucepan.

5. Split and scrape the vanilla bean caviar into the cream, and then add the entire vanilla bean half.

6. Place mixture over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar completely dissolves, roughly 3 to 5 minutes.

7. Add the strawberry gelatin mixture to the hot cream, whisking gently until the gelatin has dissolved completely.

8. Stir in the buttermilk, then strain mixture through a fine-meshed sieve into a large bowl (to remove any undissolved gelatin pieces and vanilla bean half).

9. Divide panna cotta into small ramekins (depending on the size of your ramekins, this will yield either 4 larger panna cotta servings or 6 slightly smaller servings.

10. Cover each ramekin with a lid, or with plastic wrap and allow mixture to set in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours or until completely set.

11. About 1 hour before serving the panna cotta, combine the diced strawberries, sugar, lemon zest, and basil chiffonade in a small bowl.

12. Cover and allow to macerate in the fridge for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

13. Top the panna cotta with a spoonful of macerated strawberries and serve.

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