Do y’all have date nights? Since starting work, Bowl #2 and I have fallen into an unexpected routine — Friday night date nights. “Date” is kind of a loose term. More often than not it’s $3 spicy tuna rolls at a teeny sushi joint and a slowly-savored beer, sometimes with work phones in hand, sometimes when one of us is (or both of us are) cranky and stressed. But any way it happens, it’s become a standing reservation that I think both of us really love, whether it’s a long-awaited occasion at the end of the week to unwind and joke and decompress, or whether (or maybe especially) all we do is wolf down tuna and beer and walk home to work some more.
En route to our oft-frequented teeny sushi place is a gem called Sahadi’s, one of the greatest gifts to food retail in this expansive city of ours. (Also a kitchenware store called Cook’s Companion, which exists solely to threaten the well-being of my bank account.) Many a love word has been penned about Sahadi’s, so I won’t say too much more, but it’s amazing enough that my Friday afternoons are spent looking forward to our Bowl date nights … but also daydreaming about what wondrous spices and goodies I’ll be picking up on the way.
This most recent trip brought home the teeniest tin of saffron threads, a bag of roasted pistachios, and my favorite — a box of dangerously fragrant cardamom pods. Like so fragrant that I just want to stick my face in it all day. (Pods over ground is the way to go, by the way — I think my box was $3? And looks like it will last forever.)
I feel like for the longest time cardamom was only a word that meant something fancy but nothing concrete in my mind. (Actually, it inexplicably reminded me of Vardaman, that kid from As I Lay Dying. Neither here nor there.) By consequence, I never knew what exactly gave kheer, or raas malai, or any number of the wondrous Indian confections out there their dreamily addictive flavor. I assumed that, like most Indian dishes, it was a constellation of spices and powders that were mysterious and inaccessible to me. (Still on my bucket list!) So I was thrilled to discover that it was just
Vardaman cardamom behind it all, with a touch of saffron alongside it.
Since then it’s been my goal to put it in everything. I have such grand plans for this little box of green gems. I stuffed my face with homemade kheer, spent significant time ogling this cardamom oat crumble and this vanilla cardamom cake and this cardamom ice cream.
But for here, I thought I’d start simpler — or simplest, in what is perhaps the easiest dessert to make ever. As David Lebovitz aptly describes panna cotta, “If it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you’re doing something wrong.” What’s not to love about a dessert like that? Panna cotta is such a lovely blank slate (check out this stunning chamomile version, for instance, by the indomitable Beth Kirby) that the saffron-cardamom flavors (my favorite part, of course) really get a chance to shine. Plus, topped with a golden saffron-cardamom syrup (because why not), crushed almonds and pistachios, and a touch of cinnamon, the effect is effortless but fantastic — the best kind of combination. I’m bookmarking it for guests sometime soon.
- for the panna cotta:
- 3 cups heavy cream, divided (notes on substitutions below)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- small pinch salt
- 3-4 cardamom pods
- 2-3 saffron threads
- 2 tsp unflavored gelatin powder
- pinch cinnamon for garnish (optional)
- finely chopped or grated pistachios for garnish (optional)
- sliced almonds for garnish (optional)
- for the saffron-cardamom syrup (if desired):
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 5-6 saffron threads
- 3-4 cardamom pods
- To make the panna cotta: Split open the cardamom pods and squeeze out the seeds. (Does this remind anyone of a Snargaluff pod? Anyone?) Pour 1 cup of the cream into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it, without stirring, and set aside to let the gelatin soften.
- In a small saucepan, combine the remaining 2 cups of the cream, cardamom pods and seeds, saffron threads, sugar, and salt, and heat until steaming hot but not boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Continue to stir, removing from heat if it begins to simmer, for about 5-10 minutes. For a stronger saffron-cardamom flavor, steep this cream mixture for 30 minutes, and wait until 10 minutes are left to prepare the cold cream and gelatin mixture. (I was impatient, so I didn't take this route.)
- Add the gelatin mixture to the cream mixture and reheat to steaming, stirring well to dissolve the gelatin. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the cardamom pods.
- Divide the mixture evenly among four 4-ounce ramekins, or however many cups you need depending on the size. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least four hours and up to a day in advance of serving.
- When serving, you can leave the panna cottas in their ramekins or dishes, or unmold the ramekins by placing them in a large shallow dish and filling it with hot water so that the ramekin walls warm. After about 20-30 seconds, lift the ramekins and overturn them onto dessert plates. The panna cottas should unmold easily. Garnish with crushed pistachios and almonds, a pinch of cinnamon, if desired, and a drizzle of saffron-cardamom syrup (recipe follows).
- To make the saffron-cardamom syrup: Whisk together the water and sugar in a small saucepan until sugar is dissolved. Split the cardamom pods and squeeze out the seeds; add the pods, seeds and saffron threads to the water and sugar, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 3-5 minutes, or until syrup thickens and leaves lines in the pan when stirred. Remove from heat and let cool. I left the pods and threads in the syrup, but you can strain it out if you like. Either way, simply drizzle over whatever desserts you like, or use it in a twist on a cocktail.
You can substitute up to half the cream with milk -- just use the milk as the cold portion to dissolve the gelatin in Step 1. Note that a half-milk half-cream panna cotta can run the risk of separating as it sets, so you'll want to whisk the mixture in an ice bath as it cools before pouring into cups, or whisk the mixture when it reaches room temperature before chilling it in the fridge. Here, I thought I'd just keep things simpler and go with full cream.
Alternatively, you could use half-and-half, or for a vegan version, use coconut milk (!)