Sunday, May 3, 2015

Creating a Dessert: The Story of Two Panna Cottas

For a long time I had heard about Brooks Headley's brown butter panna cotta - and how amazing it is. My first week at Pecks, Nick brought in Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts and told me to take it home and thumb through it. Aside from being one of the coolest cook books I have read in a long time - the only way to really describe it is punk rock - I noticed that it had the recipe for the panna cotta in it. Knowing how badly I wanted to try it and the likelihood that I would ever be dining at Del Posto, I scribbled it down and put it on reserve mentally. I often will find inspiration this way - reading a book or article, looking at pictures, eating out - and even just in my surroundings.

I feel silly saying that I am inspired by nature, because it has become such a cliche - but there is some truth there. I remember walking past some garlic mustard growing through the cracks in a sidewalk in Chicago on my daily commute...I was always amazed at how beautiful it was, it looked like a perfectly composed salad. I felt really awkward squatting down and taking pictures of it on a regular basis as it grew and eventually bolted over the course of a few weeks. I often think of that plant when imagining how I would plate a salad. I also constantly think of places we visited on our trip this past fall whenever I am designing a plate. I am particularly excited for my 'Craters of the Moon' dessert that is starting to take shape in my head. Its easy to make the comparisons...a salad green looking like growth, a dusting of sucre neige looking like a bit of snow, candied nuts looking like stones, torn cakes looking like mountains or pumice...the list goes on forever - and changes with context and application

Often times I will take a screen grab, a photograph, dog ear a page or take some notes...all with the idea of revisiting these things and expanding on them. A few weeks ago I decided that I was going to finally try making the brown butter panna cotta. The hiccup that always stopped me was the fact that it takes several days to make - and the restaurant is only open four days a week. But it didn't really matter..because I really wanted to try it.

While I cooked the panna cotta, I was surprised at how similar the process was to making a dulce de leche - where you slowly cook milk and sugar over low heat for a long time until much of the water has evaporated out, and the milk solids and sugars begin to caramelize. This put it in my head that I would use some dulce de leche on the finished dish - as I almost always have some kicking around. Now the dish was starting to formulate - panna cotta & dulce de leche. 

Once the base was cooked, I tasted it to adjust the seasoning and immediately I was reminded of the packages of apple slices and caramel I ate growing up. Frankly I was surprised at how strong of a caramel flavor there was, relative to the mild brown butter flavor. This balanced itself out over the next few days as the butters flavor had time to permeate throughout the base. But now I had another component for the final dish - panna cotta, dulce de leche, and apple.

Now that I was in the home stretch it wasn't long before I had the rest of the plate finished. It was made mostly with ingredients that are used elsewhere in my menu. I added a maple granola (which I use on my vegan dessert and chevre cheesecake options), a chevre mousse (we always have a tub of R&G chevre in the walk in), and some caramelized marcona almonds...because well...they're delicious and would provide a wonderful crunch that the granola wouldn't otherwise.

The completed dish: Brown Butter Panna Cotta, R&G Chevre Mousse, Dulce de Leche, Maple Granola, Caramelized Marcona Almonds, Green Apple Sorbet, Shaved Green Apple.

For the past month or so, we have been working on a tasting menu - the theme was, 'Food & Wine from Trentino-Alto Adige'. In the past, most places that I have worked in the capital district have put very little effort into themed dinners or tasting menus. They're either put together on the fly with  things that are kicking around or built with various go-to items used specifically for these occasions. This, greatest-hits approach has never sat well with me because, creatively, it seemed to defy the whole reason for offering them. There was no trying new things, no creative push.

For this dinner - our first we have offered at Peck's - we spent about a month researching the food of the region. Nick and I both ordered several books, and spent countless hours going down rabbit holes on the internet. We met with the wine rep doing the parings for the dinner and tasted many wines from the region and discussed them at length. I learned more about this regions cuisine that I ever expected - and realized how interesting it is. There were many similarities to food from Alsace, which is where many of my mentors are from - and a cuisine that is very special to me. So, not only did I have the opportunity to learn a lot about a subject and grow as a chef - I was also able to make sort of an emotional connection to the food that otherwise, I would not have.

There is a lot of blending of German and Italian food in this region - undoubtedly because of its proximity. I learned that apple strudel is a very popular dessert here. I have made strudel once before - and because of its very unique method, as well as the chef who taught me the dessert - its something that has always stuck in mind. Here I made another connection to the food, so I knew I wanted to use apples and strudel in some capacity on my dessert.

I also read quite a bit about a tart called Sbrisolona - a very popular crumbly tart...think somewhere between the topping on a coffee cake and a hearty topping on a fruit crisp with maybe just a little more texture than usual from the ubiquitous almonds found in every recipe I came across. Suddenly it clicked with me - the first great panna cotta I ever had - a toasted almond panna cotta, was taught to me by one of the aforementioned Chefs from Alsace. It was beginning to come full circle in my mind.

Toasted Almond Panna Cotta, Sbrisolona Crumble, Broken Strudle, Green Apple, Raspberry
Being in such a nurturing environment does wonders. It pushes you - creatively - to do things you didn't realize you were capable of. Being constantly surrounded by other creative types who are all functioning on a very high level and who are encouraging you to push yourself - its just a great thing to be a part of. 

In the past, I have been ashamed of my work and my food. I've always been ashamed of compromises and shortcuts I've taken - and I can't really articulate how great it feels to be part of something I am actually proud of. 

In 17 weeks - thats 67 days of business - I have sold 21 different desserts on my menu at Peck's. Here are a few:

Carrot cake, Cream Cheese Mousse, Caramelized Pineapple, Vanilla Poached Carrots, Walnuts

Olive Oil Cake, Fennel, Cardamom, Blood Orange Pearls, Orange & Ginger Sorbet, Vanilla Cream, Olive Oil.
Vegan Chocolate 'Ice Cream' with Maple Crumble
'Mocha' - Warm Chocolate Cake, Coffee Caramel, Vanilla Bubbles, Blue Bottle Hayes Valley Espresso Ice Cream, Cocoa Nibs
Gluten Free Gougeres

Bread for dinner service. 


  1. All of these plates looks fantastic and congratulations on today's review.

    1. Thanks Jon. Say Hi if you're ever in!

    2. Definitely will. Dining at Peck's is certainly on my "To Do" list.

  2. Your desserts look delicious and I'm looking forward to eating at Peck's. I've also been enjoying your road trip posts, in anticipation of a cross-country one this summer.

    1. Thanks! You should definitely come give us a try. Glad to hear someone's enjoying the road trip posts, they definitely don't get the same traction as the restaurant ones. If you're looking for any advice or suggestions or whatever, don't hesitate to ask. How long are you planning on being on the road?

    2. Not sure yet. We'll be out maybe 6 weeks or more, for just northern routes, as we've seen the south/southwest.

    3. 6 weeks! Nice. I had spent a lot of time crossing the southern US in the past - so this trip we definitely spent more time up north - and it was incredible. My only recommendation is pay attention to the calendar and where you plan on going. We were in snow in early October and encountered several places where roads were shut because of snow pack as early as October. Also if youre sleeping in the car or camping, temperatures were as low as 14 F overnight in September in some parts we visited - which is COLD. We decided that 40 was our comfortable threshold, and a little below was doable. Nights that were below freezing were not fun, even with all the layering and blankets and sleeping bags.

  3. Still have not eaten at Peck's. Soon, soon... your posts are prodding me.

    Keep up the great work, Greg! Hope to meet you soon.

    1. Gotta come in! Sit at the kitchen bar and say hi!

  4. Those plates look great, I'm really due to get to Peck's. I'll surely save room for dessert.

    1. Thanks Dominic! Hope to see you soon