Sunday, April 5, 2015

Kaffir Lime Panna Cotta

If someone were to hand me a vial of Professor Slughorn's(*) carefully brewed Amortentia, I would only need to close my eyes for a second before I would answer with absolute certainty, ''Bruised kaffir lime leaves'' . The faintest whiff is evocative; like the memory of wind rushing through untied hair on a bike or the opening chords to this song. To this day, I vividly remember when and where I first inhaled its exotic aroma. Unmistakable and distinct, its clean fragrance is relaxing and energizing at the same time. Strangely, for an ingredient essential to the celebrated balance of flavours in Thai cuisine, kaffir lime is note-worthy more for its  smell than its taste. If you were to perform a Heston Blumenthal style taste test (pinch your nose and bite into a segment of kaffir lime), you would find that by itself the lime's juice has no particular flavour. But it is only when you let go of the nose and breathe in the citrusy scent that the kaffir lime reveals its charm.

Because of this unique quality, one of the most effective ways to capture this potent flavour is by infusing it in a liquid like milk, water, cream or in a fat like butter or adding it to cake batters before baking. And modern cooks and bakers are taking it out of its traditional environs of Oriental curries, stir-fries and salads. The elusive, haunting flavour of kaffir lime can now be found in dishes like pound cake, ice creams, cocktails, pastries and so much more.

And I have done the exact same thing. I have introduced this amazing ingredient to another well known acquaintance and they have become fast friends. I am referring to my new found love for the Kaffir Lime Panna Cotta.

After seeing one wobbly panna cotta follow another on the latest season of Masterchef Australia, I too have been playing around with milk, cream, gelatin and sugar. And contrary to my unbelief, it has so far been an easy, delicious dessert. Since I felt relatively confident in the panna cotta technique, I decided to raise the stakes and use of the excess kaffir limes we had at the studio.

The final dessert was moist, coconutty, barely sweet wobble of a dish topped with candied green/red chili and crushed peanut brittle in keeping with its Thai origins redolent with kaffir lime. But the best part is that this is my own recipe and the first one to be shared on this site. Here goes!

(*) In case you have been living under a rock, Prof. Horace Slughorn is the Potions master at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry first heard of in 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' whose Amortentia potion smells different to each person, depending on their favourite aromas.

Kaffir Lime Panna Cotta

Serves 6
Time: 45 minutes + time to set

1.5 cups Coconut milk
3tbsp Gelatin
0.5 cups Sugar
1.5 cups Fresh cream
Zest of 2 Kaffir limes
8 Kaffir lime leaves

Grease six bowls or moulds liberally with vegetable oil.
Line a wide-mouthed jug or large bowl with muslin cloth.
Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan.
Add the kaffir lime zest and leaves and heat on a medium flame.
Once it boils, turn off the heat and leave to infuse and cool for 2-3 hours.
Strain and discard the kaffir lime leaves.
Sprinkle the gelatin powder and leave undisturbed till the surface appears wrinkly.
(This step is called blooming the gelatin.)
Then place on a low flame and allow the gelatin to melt while whisking constantly. (**)
Once the gelatin is completely melted, add the sugar and on the same low flame, allow it to melt. This will take about 5 minutes.
Take the saucepan off the flame and whisk in the cream till everything is incorporated and smooth.
Strain the mixture through the muslin cloth. This will remove any gelatin lumps. 
Then moving quickly, pour into the greased bowls or moulds and place in the fridge to set for upto 4 hours.
When ready to serve, dip the base of the bowl in hot water, run a knife around it and unmould onto a plate.
Garnish with candied bird's eye chilies and coarsely crushed peanut brittle.
Serve it chilled.

(**) Gelatin may seem like a fussy ingredient till you understand how it works. As soon as it comes into contact with a liquid, it gets activated trying to congeal and set into a blob. The trick is to heat it very gently over a low flame till it begins to melt. If it boils, its setting properties gets affected. The milk should get hot, but not so hot that you can't leave your finger in the pot for a few seconds. The gelatin will dissolve quickly as the milk warms; it melts at body temperature so this step should go quickly. After about 2 minutes of warming, rub a bit of the milk between your fingers to make sure it's smooth. Or dip a spoon in the milk and check the back for distinct grains of gelatin.

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