There is just something about reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil amid the rumbling and booming of thunder, the wild rains beating against the windowpane, the violent flash of lightening shooting through the blackened skies, lighting up, ever so quickly, the room. Summer heat and white light, shades lowered against the brutality, suddenly changes into a frenzied tempest. Leaving behind her a languid afternoon, a sultry evening.
Another extraordinarily busy week, beginning out in the vineyards of Saumur last Saturday with Chef Nicolas Bourget of La Raffinerie in Nantes and Aymeric & Melanie Hillaire, winemakers at Domaine Melaric. Lessons in terroir, earth scooped up and pressed through fingers, lessons of wine as we watched leaves flutter in the breeze, drinking up the sunshine, as we sipped and swooshed whites and reds down in the dark, chilly cave, the only light the sweep of sunshine coming through the opened weathered wooden door. Children skittled in and out between the vats and between our feet and screamed in delight as we listened and questioned. More questions came to me for both chef and vigneron as we set up picnic table and barbecue, as marinated chicken and vegetables sizzled on the grill, as corks popped and tomatoes were sliced and tossed with olive oil and vinegar. Sylvie shot images and video as I asked the questions, all in preparation for a story. Lessons learned and new friends made.
Aymeric the vigneron and Nicolas the chef
The week swept by with the publication of my two articles (with photographer Ilva Beretta) and reached a dizzying height with a wedding anniversary. The end of the week approached with photographs taken of a Chef Ludovic Pouzelgues of Lulu Rouget after having interviewed Chef Nhung Phung of Song Saveurs & Sens.
The Lulumobile (as I call it) in front of Lulu Rouget
The strains of saxophone rise up like cigarette smoke from under the bridge below and float lazily in through the windows as the rain, calmer now, spatters against the panes, tapping on the tabletop just inside. Sweet, easy jazz vies with the drums and bombs on tv, as we spend a listless few hours, legs up, mind numb, wilting on the sofa, before wandering back into the kitchen to cook. Panna Cotta with Roasted Cherries.
From our perch above the street, we peer out from the darkness of the apartment and watch a future bridegroom dressed all in pink, baby bonnet fixed firmly on his head and shimmering pink pom-poms clutched in his fists, dancing in front of his entourage who are laughingly urging him on. They scatter at the first raindrops, scatter like children clearing a playground along with the rest of the stragglers who have yet to take shelter. The news has been as bleak as today’s weather, shouting and screaming images of war and mayhem; train accidents in France and in Spain have left a continent stunned. We shut off the television, fling open the windows to allow the chilly wind to whip in and try and shake the feeling of shock and sadness, try and find comfort in familiar laughter and something simmering on the stove. Emails from my family with news, messages from my son who is happily oblivious to the outside world as he hangs out on the beaches of Ca Bat along the bay of Halong, strumming the strings of a secondhand guitar. The clatter of the shells of mussels being tossed about in a white whine and shallots, saffron and chili revives and draws me into the kitchen.
I adore making Panna Cotta: it is a snap to put together, the flavor variations are endless and it is husband’s favorite dessert. The combination of vanilla and dark rum is simply wonderful, a beautiful balance adding warmth, an odd and earthy sweetness and a complex layering of flavors to the cream. Topped with Rum Roasted Cherries just makes this the best summer treat, elegant and special enough to share with friends, which we did. Groans of pleasure were all that broke the concentrated silence amid the clattering of spoons against glass as mouthfuls of smooth, silky Panna Cotta were scooped up. Even the children battled for the last bite, the last cherry popped into eager, happy mouths.
VANILLA RUM PANNA COTTA WITH RUM ROASTED CHERRIES
For the Vanilla Rum Panna Cotta:
3 cups (750 ml) cream or a combination of heavy cream, light cream/half-and-half and milk
2 tsps (1/4 oz, about 8 g) powdered unflavored gelatin
½ cup (100 g) granulated white sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract or the seeds scraped from one vanilla pod
3 Tbs dark rum or to taste
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, pour 1 cup (250 ml) of the cream/milk mixture and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to soften the gelatin; I usually just tap the gelatin to push it under the liquid. After 5 minutes, turn the flame under the pot to low and allow to heat very gently for a 5 minutes until the gelatin dissolves completely, whisking carefully. Do not allow the milk to come to a boil: you can add a bit more of the cream/milk to the pot if desired while heating; if the milk starts to steam too much, simply pull the pot off of the heat and whisk until the 5 minutes are up.
Whisk in the sugar and the rest of the cream or cream mixture and continue to heat over low until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is thoroughly warmed through. Whisk in the vanilla and the rum, taste and add more rum if desired. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before dividing evenly between 6 glasses, verrines or ramekins.
Cover each with plastic wrap and slide into the refrigerator to chill and firm overnight.
For the Rum Roasted Cherries:
(adapted from a recipe on The Kitchn)
30 plump, ripe unpitted cherries
2 tablespoons demerara or granulated brown sugar (cassonade)
Pinch sea salt - fleur de sel
2 Tbs dark rum
Preheat oven to 450°F (230°C).
Place the whole unpitted cherries in a small roasting pan and toss with the sugar and a pinch of salt. Place in the oven and roast until the cherries start to release their juices and the sugar melts and begins to caramelize. This will take about 10 minutes but watch the cherries very carefully, as the sugar may start to burn.
At the end of 10 minutes, remove the roasting pan from the oven and add the 2 tablespoons dark rum and toss until all of the sugar is moistened and the cherries are coated. Return the roasting pan to the oven for 5 more minutes. Watch very carefully to make sure that the sugar does not burn. Remove the roasting pan from the oven to a wooden board or cooling rack. Allow the cherries to rest until cool enough to handle. Remove the stems from all of the cherries except a few for decoration if desired. Pit all of the cherries (except the few still with their stems) over the roasting pan to catch any juices and discard the pits.
Place the roasting pan on the stove over a very very low flame and stir and toss, gently pressing the cherries with the back of a spoon or spatula just to release a bit more juice. Toss and cook gently but very quickly – only a minute or two – until the last of the sugar has melted and a thick, cherry red juice forms. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to either warm or room temperature.
Spoon a few Rum Roasted Cherries onto each chilled and set Vanilla Rum Panna Cotta with a bit of the cherry rum juice and serve immediately.