Updated: Oct 13
Sometimes I wonder how things get invented.
Some mad scientists long ago decided to boil the hooves of pigs and cows and, a century later, presto, Bill Cosby appears on your tv screen advertising Jello Pops and Jigglers.
At first, this gelatinous stew was used as a primitive glue. How did it get from glue to favorite dessert of kids and grandmas the world over?
My grandmother loved Jell-O. She ate it every night after dinner. There was always some prepared in her fridge and packaged back-ups in her cupboard.
In my grandmother’s day, Jell-O was considered modern and futuristic. Somehow pieces of fruit, vegetables, and even mayonnaise suspended in a jelly-like substance meant you were real hip. The number of Jell-O molds you owned - a status symbol.
Imagine if just owning a collection of fancy Jell-O molds meant you climbed the socioeconomic ladder.
Still, gelatin seems miraculous. It has no flavor, color, or odor, and it can take on any shape.
It’s a clean slate, a blank canvas.
Sometimes, I wish I were like Jell-O.
On days when I feel like I can’t hold it together. Days when I’m on the verge of melting into a shapeless puddle on the kitchen floor. Days when life seems unstructured and ill-formed.
I wish I could pour myself into the mold of my dreams and, a few hours later, reemerge with enviable bounce-back - sweet and cool and refreshing, too.
I don’t know.
I know people who are flavorless and colorless. They might be odorless, too, and that could be good, but man are they a bore. A real yawn, you know?
To be honest, I hate Jell-O.
It's a snooze of a dessert.
There is, however, a gelatin-based dessert that I love. Think of it as Jello’s much more glamorous and interesting cousin. Creamy and velvety, infused with liqueurs, and real, seasonal ingredients.
Instead of being slippery and weebly-wobbly, filled with artificial flavors and ingredients that don’t make sense, the gelatin in panna cotta holds its shape and yields the most amazing consistency.
My friend, Johnny, describes its texture like this, “Imagine if crème brûlée and pudding had a baby.”
Now, who could hate that?
Pumkin Pie Pana Cotta
12 4 oz. ramekins
Fine mesh sieve
3 ½ teaspoons powdered gelatin
2 tablespoons water
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
¾ cup of sugar
¼ cup Frangelico or other hazelnut liqueur (optional)
1 15 oz. can pure pumpkin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed pot, add cream, milk, sugar, Frangelico, pumpkin, spices, and vanilla and bring to a gentle boil.
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Candied Cinnamon Walnuts, chopped (recipe to follow)
Lightly spray ramekins with cooking spray and set aside.
In a small, nonstick pan (with the heat off) pour 2 tablespoons of water.
Sprinkle gelatin over water and let bloom for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed pot, add cream, milk, sugar, Frangelico, pumkin, spices, and vanilla and bring to a gentle boil.
On low heat, heat saucepan with water and gelatin until gelatin is completely dissolved. Using a rubber spatula, scrape gelatin into cream mixture. Whisk thoroughly.
Strain liquid into another container using a fine-mesh sieve and whisk.
Pour the strained liquid into prepared ramekins and chill for at least 4 hours.
Turn out ramekin onto a plate and garnish with chopped candied, cinnamon walnuts, and pomegranate seeds.
Candied Cinnamon Walnuts
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup of sugar
1 cup walnuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon salt
In a medium-sized skillet, add butter, sugar, and walnuts. Sprinkle with cinnamon and salt. Stir occasionally until sugar and butter are melted then pour-out coated walnuts onto a piece of foil.
Once completely cool, they can be chopped and stored in an air-tight container.
1. People have different ways of extracting the seeds from a pomegranate. Some methods seem very intricate and take unnecessary time. In my opinion, cut the pomegranate in half (keeping the stem intact), give it a good squeeze. Then, using a wooden spoon, give the skin-side a good amount of whacks. This can be a messy endeavor as seeds can go flying and the juice will stain everything in sight. My solution to this is to put the two halves in a large ziplock bag before the squeezing and whacking begin.
Even easier - buy frozen pomegranate seeds.
2. This recipe yields a creamy, pudding-like texture that has just enough gelatin to hold its shape. If you like a firmer pannacotta just add another ½ -1 teaspoon more gelatin to the recipe.
3. Any container can be used as a ramekin. At the restaurant, we use paper, to-go soup cups. For this recipe, I used disposable tins that I found at a baking store. No need to invest in ramekins if you don’t want to.