On the motionless branches of some trees, autumn berries hung like clusters of coral beads,
as in those fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels . . .
– Charles Dickens
It was a beautiful day. Certainly not a day for sitting inside, even with the windows thrown open. This was not a day for work, for burying one’s head underneath a pile of papers and a heap of ideas. No, this was a glorious day for heading out of town, for a brisk country walk. This was a day for liberating both body and soul, getting a bit of fresh air and just thinking of other things. Little did we realize just what we would discover.
JP wanted to see the storks. There is a secluded, wild area, a bird reserve where storks gather and breed, high up on the perches built especially for them in the marshes outside of Nantes. Just slip on boots and wade thigh-high among the grasses and reeds and you will surely come upon families nesting. But a cross between having lost our rubber boots and having lost our map and nature guide book in the move (or not quite being able to put our fingers on them), and after circling around in the countryside a bit, we pulled the care over to the side of the road, climbed out, leashed Marty and just dove into the trees, taking the first path we came across.
An unexpected hot wind was blowing against us as we made our way past the cows and deep into pastureland. Marty, unused to the harsh conditions of the great outdoors as he is these days, not having really adventured outside with us for many months, was weaving in and out among the prickly grass, lifting his short legs as high as possible in a failed attempt to bypass the sharpness of the flora. He dashed for the rare spots of shade where he would plop down and roll around in the grass to cool down. But happy he was to be outside and off the leash! We eventually came to the edge of a wide field and discovered a narrow river or deep stream edged with thorny bushes thick with leaves. An opening in the greenery and JP pushed Marty into the drink once, twice, thrice, forcing him to bathe and cool off.
We walked along the bushes, around the edge of the field and lo and behold what do we spy? Wild blackberries plump and ripe from the sun and the heat! We picked a few and popped them into our mouths. “Let’s pick some!” I shouted to him, thinking of my friend Nancy Baggett and her foraged berries. “But we don’t have anything to collect them in!” he shouted back, a hint of disappointment in his voice. “But I have a bag that I brought a snack in!” I answered back to his utter delight. (Thank heavens someone thinks to pack snacks!). And so we dove in and brought home over a pound of wild blackberries, our fingers black and sticky with juice.
What to make? We batted a few ideas around until finally I mentioned Panna Cotta. I know how he loves Panna Cotta.
BLUEBERRY HIBISCUS PANNA COTTA with Wild Blackberry Coulis
1 lb (500 g) blackberries, cleaned
1 - 2 Tbs granulated white sugar and more to taste
Select and put aside 6 or 12 whole blackberries for decorating/serving.
The coulis can be prepared one of two ways:
1) Cook the blackberries with 1 tablespoon of the sugar over very low heat, pressing and mashing the blackberries as they cook until soft and the sugar is dissolved, about 8 – 10 minutes. Add more sugar, one teaspoon at a time, until the berries and juice is sweet enough and to your liking (how much sugar you add will depend on the natural sweetness of the berries as well as how sweet you like them. If mixing with the panna cotta, it is better to under-sweeten them. Once cooked, allow the berries to cool for about ten minutes or so, then press through a fine strainer, pushing them through with a soft spatula until only seeds are left; discard the seeds and impurities. Taste the resulting liquid coulis and again add a bit more sugar if desired.
2) Purée the berries in a blender or with an emulsion mixer. Cook the berries over very low heat with one tablespoon of the sugar until the sugar is dissolved (if they are very juicy, you can cook for a few minutes, stirring or whisking, until slightly thickened. Strain the berries through a fine mesh strainer, pushing them through with a soft spatula until only seeds are left; discard the seeds and impurities. Taste the resulting liquid coulis and again add a bit more sugar if desired.
Allow the coulis to cool. This can be done ahead of time and chilled in the refrigerator before preparing the panna cotta.
Blueberry Hibiscus Panna Cotta:
3 cups (750 ml) cream or a combination of heavy cream, light cream/half-and-half and milk, either whole or lowfat
2 tsps (1/4 oz, 8 g) unflavored gelatin powder
½ cup (100 g) sugar, 1 tsp replaced with 1 tsp blueberry hibiscus sugar (or similar) - alternately, use all white granulated sugar and make vanilla panna cotta
In a medium-sized, heavy saucepan, place half (about 1 ½ cups) of the cold cream or cream-milk blend; sprinkle the gelatin on top and gentle press down into the liquid with the back of a spoon or whisk. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to soften.
After the 5 minutes, turn the heat under the saucepan to low and gently allow the liquid to warm; once warm allow to cook for 5 minutes, whisking constantly, until the gelatin has dissolved completely (you won’t see anymore golden spots on the surface of the liquid). Do not allow the liquid to boil.
Remove 1 tablespoon of the white sugar from the half-cup and replace with the 1 tablespoon of the flavored sugar. Add both the sugar and the remaining cream or cream-milk blend to the saucepan and heat. Continue cooking over low heat, whisking constantly, until completely warmed through and the sugar has dissolved. Do not allow the mixture to boil. Stir in the vanilla.
Let the panna cotta mixture cool to tepid or room temperature before pouring into serving glasses.
Once the coulis is cooled and the panna cotta is at least warm or tepid, you can assemble the desserts. Have 6 or 8 glasses (depending on how much panna cotta you like to serve as a dessert – I made 6), transparent ramekins or cups ready. Pour 2 tablespoons of the blackberry purée/coulis in the bottom of each glass. Place the panna cotta liquid in a container with a spout, like a large measuring cup, for example; pouring from a spouted container simply allows dividing the liquid between the glasses with more ease and less mess. Carefully and slowly fill each glass with panna cotta almost but not quite up to the rim or as much as desired for one serving. If poured slowly, the dark coulis will swirl into the lighter panna cotta (see photos).
Cover each glass tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours to overnight to set.
To serve, simply drizzle a bit of the blackberry coulis on each panna cotta, top with one or two blackberries and serve. Leftover coulis is perfect on yogurt, ice cream or cake.