Posts filed under ‘Frozen Desserts’

Black Pepper Panna Cotta & Red Wine Strawberries

Black Pepper Panna Cotta (main)

I bought a carton of strawberries.

I did it against my better judgment—the berries were suspiciously big and still a little out of season, not to mention overpriced. They were so red I couldn’t help but feel suspicious.

But I bought them anyway because I wanted to make panna cotta, and I thought berries would make the plate prettier. Plus, I’d found a half-cup of cheap cabernet in the fridge, forgotten by the apartment’s previous tenants, and I figured that would be enough to make mediocre berries taste good.

I went home and got to work, chilling the panna cottas and reducing the wine to a slow-bubbling glaze. After all that, I popped open the box of strawberries. I was surprised—they actually looked really good. Well, I thought, I’m glad they’ll photograph nice. I scooped up a handful, ran them under water, and let them tumble onto a cutting board, which slowly pinkened with juice. Before slicing, I picked up one of the smaller berries, pinched off the green, and popped the whole thing in my mouth.

Wow.

Black Pepper Panna Cotta (strawberry)

Black Pepper Panna Cotta (spoon)

With one bite I was transported home to Seattle, to our front yard, to my mom’s strawberry patch.

She planted the seeds when I was a senior in high school. They’ve grown prolifically since then, the leaves a dense carpet. The berries are tiny, thimble-sized, and redder than roses. They’re profusely floral, like perfume in your palms, so fragrant you taste them before you’ve parted your lips. Each bite melts on your tongue and the sweetness probably causes cavities.

They’re the best strawberries I’ve ever had.

One year, I infused some into a jar of bourbon. Another time, I made shortcakes with thick dollops of real cream. But they’re always best as-is, still warm from the sun, by the bowl-full. My dad likes to dip them in black pepper, a preference I found off-putting until I tried it. You can’t actually taste the pepper—like salt on chocolate, it simply enhances the berry itself.

Once I’d settled on red wine strawberries, I added pepper to the panna cottas, without hesitation.

Black Pepper Panna Cotta (closeup)

The grocery store strawberries weren’t as good as my mom’s. Not even close. But they were outrageously better than I expected. The panna cottas were, too.

I was nervous they would stick to their molds, but each panna cotta wobbled right onto the plate. The texture was perfect—-firm enough to hold a shape, yet soft and creamy as pudding. The edges were smooth as marble. I’d originally imagined the pepper sprinkled throughout, and I was disappointed they had settled down instead. But on second glance, I liked the way it looked—-pure white with black flecks crowning the top, like caviar, gently trickling down.

And the berries. Glossy, sweet, and superbly robust. The color contrast was gorgeous. I didn’t regret stirring them into the red wine reduction, even though I usually like to eat delicious fruit as-is.

I’ll save that simple happiness for the next time I’m home.

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June 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm 15 comments

Gelato Withdrawals

Standing before the counter, I meant to order a double scoop of stracciatella for one simple reason – after a week in Italy, the chocolate-flecked gelato remained the only flavor I could pronounce correctly.

The first time I bought gelato, I waited in line behind a panther of a woman, distinctly Italian among the throng of tourists. She radiated confidence in a black leather jacket and sky-high stilettos, balancing effortlessly atop the uneven Roman cobblestone. “Una paletta di stracciatella, per favore,” she trilled, the double C crackling like almond brittle between her teeth, the final syllable sung out rather than spoken, a ringing “LA.”

When the line shuffled forward, my plan to smile and point suddenly lost all appeal, and I blurted out, “Stracciatella!” As parrot-like as the word sounded in my American accent, it seemed less embarassing than blindly butchering anything else.

The gelato culture here isn’t anything like eating ice cream in the states. No matter where you are in Rome, you can probably spot a couple gelaterias from where you’re standing – across the street, inside the bakeries, even next door to one another. Gelato is denser and creamier than ice cream, with fresh flavors and prices cheaper than water.

I ate gelato twice a day while I was in Italy, for dessert and sometimes for dinner. Some shops packed scoops into chocolate-dipped cones, other topped the cup with a thin waffle cookie called a pizelle, and one store smothered the gelato with unsweetened whipped cream. Pretty soon, before lunch and after dinner, my order became a habit, the only flavor I could say with confidence: “Stracciatella.”

I stumbled upon a little gelateria one afternoon in Venice. More of a street-side counter than a shop, tucked in the south end of Campo Santa Margherita, the place didn’t advertise its fame as Venice’s best gelato with banners or framed awards. But the long line of people, all craning over each other’s shoulders to peek at the display case, wordlessly gave me the message.

Unlike some of the shops I’d visited, with counters that wrapped around the room, this place offered fewer than a dozen bins of gelato. But I was struck by the simplicity and intensity of the flavors offered, the effortless swirl of the gelato. Even though I couldn’t understand most of the Italian labels, garnishes translated for me – halved figs sparkling atop the fico, tan-edged wisps of coconut dotting the coco, a scattering of skinned hazelnuts over the nocciola.

I was tempted by the amarena, a cream based gelato swirled with sour cherry sauce, the fruit mixed in whole. In the next bin I discovered pistacchio, a flavor I’d seen almost everywhere. But the natural color, paler than the artificial neon green I sometimes saw, made this one stand out. And of course, there was my go-to stracciatella: white and perfectly smooth, aside from the streaks of rippled chocolate marbling throughout.

Before I could order the stracciatella, I discovered a wholly new flavor. Nearly black, this concoction churned dark chocolate into the creamiest-looking gelato I’d ever seen. In the afternoon sun, bits of candied orange peel studding the chocolate caught the light like jewels.

I found the label and immediately got lost in a string of C’s and vowels, still too proud to silently point. In the past few weeks I’d visited Scotland and England in the UK, English-speaking cities in the Netherlands, and Paris, which revived my high school French. But here in Italy, with no understanding of the language, I felt so invasive, so touristy, unable to blend in.

When I looked up, the man at the counter was smiling.

“Cioccolato all-arancia,” he said, the consonants soft in his deep voice.

“Cho-koh-LAH-toh ahl-ah-RAHN-cha,” I repeated.

He worked a bit of gelato back and forth a few times with a flat paddle until it was soft and creamy, and topped a waffle cone with a generous smear. This gelato had the texture of silk, an elusive airiness. The chocolate melted into a bittersweet custard on my tongue, the candied orange like tiny sunbursts. It was simply the best gelato I’d ever tasted.

When I found myself in line for a scoop the next morning in Florence, I scanned the bins, anticipating the flavor I’d choose next. Gianduja? Castagna? Something mysterious called zabaione, with no garnish whatsoever?

Maybe I couldn’t speak Italian, but by the time I returned to the Netherlands, I planned to be fluent in gelato.

Click for more photos from my travels in Italy…

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November 16, 2011 at 11:42 am 49 comments

Red Berry Swirl Ice Cream & Gingersnap Cones

Red Berry Swirl Ice Cream

For a long time, I’ve wanted to live in a city.

Two semesters in college have confirmed this. Sometimes I think Boston won me over just as much as the college tour. I see the parks as my quad, the neighborhoods as my library. When the sun dips, I love walking down the endless streets – light concentrates in the spaces between brick buildings, bathing the whole city in gold.

I like the way the sidewalks breathe at night. Even in the dark, people are everywhere, and insect wings glint under the streetlights. I love the way honking cars and buzzing neon signs become lullabies. In the morning, I wake up with the city. The bus exhales beneath my seat and happy smells waft out of the bakeries. Every day is new and full of possibility, of discovery and change. I feel alive.

Red Currants

My boyfriend I- isn’t like this. He appreciates the pizza parlors open until 2 am and enjoys late-night photography in Chinatown. But in the “real world,” he could never live somewhere with that many cars, with so many people.

He visited Seattle for the first time last week. I made sure we checked out downtown record shops and college student hangouts. But I-’s favorite things about Washington?

He loved driving east towards Fall City, where thick trees threaten to swallow the road. He’ll remember Snoqualmie Falls, the semi-decayed bridge we were too scared to cross, and the pie we ate at a tiny North Bend diner. He was impressed with rocky Mount Si and snow-capped Mount Rainier. And he liked our floating bridges.

He also liked my backyard. It’s large in proportion to our little house, wrapping around three edges of our home. One section is a grassy stretch, another features the stone path and garden Mom and Dad built two years ago, and the third area holds our herbs and vegetables.

Gingersnap Cones

There’s something magical about growing our own produce. Since our lettuce heads unfurled, I’ve eaten more salads than ever. We get on our knees to find the ripest strawberries, which are more tender and sweet than any grocery store berry. I like slicing them in half, pouring coconut milk over them, and sprinkling the top with raw oats. Food tastes better when it’s just picked, still sun warmed, still breathing.

Before we planted them in our garden, I’d never thought about red currants. Each berry is tiny, translucent, and unbelievably crimson. They’re a little sour and pop between your teeth. The morning every berry suddenly turned ripened, I picked currants until my fingertips and lips were perfumed red.

I have to admit that I don’t really know what to do with them. My mom and I picked every currant in a race against the birds, and now we have cups and cups of a fruit that remains a mystery to both of us. Our batch is a little too tart to eat raw but we don’t have any experience with cooking them. Mom simmered some into a syrup, and I swirled some into ice cream.

Cream Soaked Berry I dropped a tiny strawberry into the point of each cone (to seal the bottom.) The result? The last bite of ice cream cone includes a vanilla cream soaked berry. Amazing.

It takes a lot of currants to make not-so-much puree. I threw in a few of our strawberries to add sweetness, and some honey when strawberries weren’t enough. I layered the red berry puree with my favorite vanilla ice cream. The berries are so deep and vivid against the creamy white, freckled with black seeds, that I see galaxies and constellations in every scoop.

I spent an afternoon making gingersnap ice cream cones, and after an hour in the kitchen I was ready for fresh air. I went into the backyard to photograph them, and realized I didn’t want to go back in. The ice cream just tasted better outside. It made the berry swirl brighter and the vanilla more exotic, standing in the sun without a skyscraper or printed ad in sight.

I miss the bustle of living downtown, but I’ve learned something else. I want to eat like I’m tucked deep in the country. I don’t know how I’m going to make it work back in school, without soil or farm-fresh produce in sight.

For now, I’ll keep eating lunch outside, listening to the leaves rustle and feeling more alive than I have all summer.

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July 23, 2011 at 6:23 pm 48 comments

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far second semester? Bundle up. Sometimes when I step outside it hurts to inhale, like the breath freezes in my lungs. Snow packs into the spaces between bricks.

The other morning I took an extra long, extra hot shower and found myself running late to class. I got dressed, swept up my books, and headed for the elevator. I didn’t give my towel-dried hair a second thought until I was on the sidewalk. I couldn’t have been outside longer than a few minutes, but when I got to the classroom, my skull was so cold it burned. My hair had frozen solid, waves of ice brushing against my cheeks.

When the temperature is in the single digits, I try not to leave my building. But between classes and shifts at the restaurant, I’m getting the full New England winter experience.

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

Way back in September, one of the things I immediately loved about Boston was its color palette. Seattle is splashed grey and green and blue, with chrome and glass and buildings that reflect the clouds. While it’s gorgeous and familiar, Massachusetts was a welcome change. Boston is all brick and gold and off-white, rich with history and equally beautiful. But four months later the cars and streets and trees are burdened with dirty snow, and that’s all I notice.

I walk to work with the same philosophy I have towards other unpleasant things – get it over with quickly. Salt crystals crackle beneath my boots every step of the way. Scarf, gloves, earmuffs, two coats and a pair of tights under my jeans… Every accessory means the longer it’ll take me to change into uniform once I get there.

When my shift ends long after midnight, the sidewalks are quiet and clear. Sometimes a fresh blanket of snow has fallen and untouched white stretches in all directions. The air is just as chilly before, but windless, and the street feels unreal. I’ve caught myself standing in the restaurant’s doorway, breathless, suddenly reminded why I love living here.

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

The walk home is so dark, it’s like a different set of streets. The blackness swallows up the lampposts, so the bulbous orange lights seem suspended in midair. Taxi headlights cut through the darkness in wide, white sweeps. I watch my breath curl into itself and dissolve up towards the sky, which is either greyed purple or orange thanks to light pollution.

Boston is painted with an entirely different color theme at 1 AM. And as I walked home last night, past leafless trees embossed with snow, I suddenly thought of semifreddo.

When the semifreddo is made, a quick custard folded with whipped cream, it’s marshmallowy and soft. But after an overnight freeze, it becomes an entirely different dessert, with the creamy richness of ice cream. And this semifreddo has a gorgeous color palette, too. The base is flavored with dry white wine and a hint of orange, the color of eggshells. Every slice is studded with vibrant dried cranberries and sharp crystalized ginger, like gems held up to the light.

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

I realize it’s still the dead of winter, but I’m one of those people who orders iced coffee and eats gelato all year. I can get home from work, clap my snow-packed boots together, and enjoy a cold fruit smoothie straight from the fridge. I’m one of the lucky people who happily makes semifreddo whenever the whim strikes. This dessert is unusual and beautiful, worth a hurried walk through the chill.

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January 27, 2011 at 3:42 pm 47 comments

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Elissa Bernstein



I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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