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Sweet Indian finish: Mango lassi panna cotta

March 31, 2006


Meena over at Hooked on Heat offered a challenge this month to cook a fusion dish, an international recipe adapted to express Indian flavors. Thinking about it, I was reminded of the first time I ate in an Indian restaurant. It was only two or three years ago. I was a shrinking wimp when it came to heat in my food - no spicy wings, no fresh pepper, certainly no horseradish. Curry was simply out of the question.

But I finally accepted an offer from some friends and went with them to an Indian restaurant for dinner. I was struck by the complexity of the flavors - sour, tangy, sharp and spicy, deep and warm. The cinnamon and cumin lingered far back on my tongue, along with the smooth sauces and crisp, golden samosas with fiery chutneys. The warm, elastic bread had garlic and butter in it, soaking together with the rich sauce as we scooped it up. This was different from the suicidal, one-note hot wings the guys would eat in college, a macho game of mouth burning. This was sophisticated, complex food that had so many levels and flavors that I couldn't sort them all out - just enjoyed.

My taste for spices has grown exponentially since then, getting turned on to South Indian dosai and Keralan fish with tamarind. A rava masala dosa stuffed with tender, melting yellow potatoes, with a side of lip-clenchingly sour lime pickle and a dish of cool yogurt sounds like the perfect way to start a day. Beautiful star anise, musky cardamom, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, tiny red hot peppers - they all have their jars, lined up in a colorful array in my kitchen.

But the thing I remember most, from that memorable and defining meal, was the end. My friends ordered me a mango lassi. I don't think I had ever even eaten a mango, at that unenlightened point in my life. This bright orange, foamy drink came and I sipped that cool, sweet and tangy staple of Indian restaurants the world over. It was a long, sweet finish to a meal of warmth and spice.

I've tried to make it several times, experimenting with different combinations of yogurt, milk, and buttermilk - fresh mango, puree, and canned slices. The ripe sweetness of a good mango - rare in the US, even here in the southern parts - paired with the tang of yogurt blended into a froth is one of my favorite flavors ever.

So this is what I thought of, when Meena announced this theme. I love panna cotta - the Italian cooked custard made with gelatin instead of eggs - soft, delicate, a little wobbly. Substitute buttermilk for the cream and make up the liquid with pureed mangos, and a mango lassi in gently set pudding is born. This is a wonderful dessert for one or two - it's fairly healthy, buttermilk being not as fatty as it sounds, and the fruit is rich in vitamins. It also takes only about 10 minutes to make. I use canned mangos from Thailand, as they seem the most dependable in flavor. If you use fresh mango, be sure to strain the liquid before pour it into cups in order to get the fibers out. Also, I suggest a whole packet of gelatin to thicken the custard. Most panna cotta recipes won't call for this much, but buttermilk is thinner than cream and I think it needs a little extra help.

The taste and texture of this is wonderful - the same smooth familiar taste and tangy bite, with a small pinch of spicy cardamom to bring out the sweetness.

Mango Lassi Panna Cotta

1 15oz. can of sliced mango, syrup drained off
1 envelope of unflavored gelatin
1.5 cups of well-shaken buttermilk
0.25 cup of sugar
cardamom to taste

1. Put 0.5 cups of the buttermilk into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it to soften.
2. Pour the rest of the buttermilk (1 cup) into a small saucepan over medium-low heat.
3. Process the mango into puree in a food processor and add to the saucepan. Stir well.
4. Whisk in the 0.25 cup of sugar.
5. Bring the saucepan's contents to a light, simmering boil, then remove from the heat.
6. Add the softened gelatin in its buttermilk to the saucepan and whisk vigorously.
7. Add a few pinches of cardamom and whisk again..
8. Pour mixture into small cups or ramekins and chill at least four hours, or until set. Serve with a sprinkling of cardamom and lime wedges on the side. This is also good with fresh strawberries piled on top.

Serves 1, 2 or 3, depending on size of the serving cups. Good for breakfast, too, especially if you don't add much sugar.

Note: if you plan to try to unmold these and serve them freestanding on a plate, lightly oil the the cups beforehand, and definitely use the full packet of gelatin. Soak in hot water for just a moment to release, then run a thin knife around the edge of the cup and turn out onto a plate.

Posted by Faith at 31 March 2006

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This sounds amazing!

Posted by: Julie at April 26, 2006 10:14 PM

This looks like an amazing dessert!

Posted by: Julie at April 26, 2006 10:18 PM

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