blood orange panna cotta

Blood orange panna cotta makes a dramatically divine (and surprisingly easy!) dessert

Blood oranges are the beach vacations of winter ingredients.

Huh? What? 

You know: It's cold out, and maybe gloomy. Maybe it's snowing. Maybe you have cabin fever. Maybe you're dreaming of stretching out on the sand on the Mayan Riviera under the sun, with crystal clear turquoise-colored water lapping at your toes. 

I'd love that, too. 

But instead, I'm going to reach for the next best thing: blood oranges. How lovely that something so juicy, so deliciously vibrant and summer-like comes into season in the dead of winter – and sticks around till May. 

A good part of their allure is visual. When they're whole, they look almost like regular oranges, but notice their slight rosacea blush. Slice one open, and it's gorgeous, its segments streaked in shades of crimson and and ruby red and blackberry. Now taste: They have a lovely flavor, sort of like oranges tinged with berry, or yes – cassis. 

In the United States, they're grown in California and Texas (two of the three states I have called home!). But I associate them with Rome, I think because once upon a time when I visited, I breakfasted on a hotel rooftop where they served crusty rolls with good butter – and glasses of fresh-squeezed blood orange juice. 

For cooks, blood oranges are a boon, as they're both delicious and dramatic. Count on them to elicit oohs and aaahs at the dinner table – especially if you spoon them over a delicately sweet, trembly-soft blood-orange-flavored panna cotta, Italy's famous custard-like dessert. 

Made from warmed, sweetened cream set with gelatin, panna cotta isn't a Roman dessert; it comes from Piedmont, according to The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, which also points out that it is "usually flavored with vanilla" (which I knew) "and peach brandy" (which I did not know). Often, the entry continues, it is served with fruit after it is unmolded, or with genuine balsamic vinegar. (Something to try! Though not with the supermarket stuff that passes for balsamic vinegar.) "It is increasingly popular with enthusiasts of the lighter side of Italian food," the 2007 book's entry concludes.

Indeed. Over the last decade, panna cotta has become a hugely popular restaurant dessert.

Happily, it is incredibly easy to make at home: In most versions, you bloom powdered gelatin over cold milk, then stir in cream that's been warmed just enough to dissolve sugar in it, cool the mixture, pour into custard cups, chill till they're set, then unmold just before serving. David Lebovitz, one of my favorite food bloggers, wrote recently, "if it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you're taking too long!" He's not exaggerating.

Blood orange compote

Flavoring a classic panna cotta with blood orange juice gives it a delightful new dimension.  It's wonderful on its own, but top it with a compote of blood oranges and it becomes positively spectacular.  

A few thoughts about the panna cotta itself, before we get to the blood orange compote. Traditionally, it's made with cream, which makes a really rich and thick panna cotta. I like my panna cotta lighter – and more silky than velvety – so I swap out most of the cream for half-and-half. And I don't want it too stiff: soft and trembly is the idea, so I use the minimum amount of gelatin possible in order for it to hold its shape (more or less) after unmolding. (If you want yours to be a little stiffer, add an extra half a teaspoon of gelatin to the three teaspoons my recipe calls for.) 

Because it involves blood orange juice, my recipe is a little different from the traditional one: You sprinkle the gelatin over blood orange juice, let it sit, then heat it up and dissolve the sugar in the juice. Let it cool a little, then stir in the half-and-half, cream and either vanilla or orange liqueur. Pour it into custard cups (which you've lightly oiled) and let them set up in the fridge. 

While they're setting, you can make the compote; for this the only real work involved is cutting the oranges. If you're comfortable slicing suprèmes, go for it – they make a beautiful presentation. (That's what's shown above.) To do this, use a sharp paring knife to cut all the peel and pith off each orange, then slice between each membrane to release the segments, freeing them of all the membranes. With a little practice, it becomes very easy. (Here's a good walk-through on the technique from Serious Eats – scroll down to "Citrus Suprèmes" to find it.)

If you don't want to sweat it, just cut the peel and pith off the outside of each blood orange, slice it, then quarter the slices. It'll still be really pretty.

When you're slicing, be sure to capture all the juice that escapes –  you'll need half a cup for the compote. You might want to have an extra blood orange or two on hand just in case you don't capture enough juice. Heat that juice with some sugar, and cook it down till it's syrupy, then stir in a spoonful of Cognac or other brandy and pour it all over the orange segments. 

When you're ready to serve it, run a small, sharp knife around the edge of each custard cup, then invert it onto a plate or shallow bowl and let the panna cotta unmold. Sometimes you have to give it a little nudge with butter knife to release it. Divide the blood orange compote over the panna cottas and serve.

Alternately, if you don't want to unmold the panna cotta – either because it makes you nervous or you prefer a different look – you can serve the panna cotta in a wine glass or dessert glass and simply spoon some of the compote over it. 

I happen to think it's the perfect light dessert to follow a rich holiday dinner. Yes, like roast duck! Or a crown roast of pork, or a prime rib.  It's also a great finish to a lighter New Year's Eve dinner – maybe steamed lobsters, or other seafood. 

I know what you're thinking: Recipe, please! Here you go . . . 

Meanwhile, here's some good news: Blood oranges have a nice, long season – they're usually available into May in California and Texas. So if you happen to fall in love it this dessert – or with the blood oranges themselves (they're wonderful eat out of hand, as long as you're not wearing a white tee-shirt) – this could be the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.