It’s hard to believe that only a month after moving to Florida, my old hometown got hit with one of the worst storms in its history. Many of my family and friends are still without power and are struggling with the after effects of Hurricane Sandy. My thoughts are with all of the people who were affected by this terrible storm and I hope that you and your loved ones are all safe.
Now that I’ve settled into my new home in Fort Lauderdale, I wanted to create a dish that would celebrate a quintessential Floridian ingredient- key limes. Key lime pie has always been my dad’s favorite dessert- anytime he sees it on a menu, he has to order it. I remember when we used to drive out to our summer house on the weekends, we would always pick up a whole key lime pie from the local store and it would be done by the end of the weekend, sometimes before. Key limes are actually a specific type of lime commonly grown in South Florida and Mexico. Compared to the traditional Persian limes that we’re used to seeing in grocery stores, key limes are smaller (about the size of a golf ball) and rounder with a much thinner rind. They are usually green when they’re picked but turn more yellow in color as they ripen. They have a characteristic tart flavor that adds a nice citrus punch to everything from drinks to marinades, sauces, and desserts.
Rather than make a traditional key lime pie, I decided to make a key lime panna cotta. Panna cotta literally means “cooked cream” in Italian. It’s an Italian dessert made by heating cream with sugar, other flavorings and gelatin. The mixture is then refrigerated until it is thickened and set- no baking involved. It can be eaten directly out of small bowls or ramekins or for a more dramatic presentation, it can be inverted onto a plate and served with toppings or a sauce. Basic panna cotta is flavored with just vanilla and sugar but you can infuse it with a wide variety of flavors such as tart key limes. It’s a terrific dessert to serve for a dinner party because it makes an elegant presentation and it’s incredibly easy to make. And the best part is that you can prepare a batch a couple of days in advance and keep them in the fridge until you’re ready to serve them.
To make my panna cotta a little healthier, I use a combination of half and half mixed with low fat butttermilk. Compared to the heavy cream used in the traditional version, this cuts a significant amount of calories and fat without sacrificing a nice, creamy texture. I find that the buttermilk also adds a nice tangy flavor that works well with the tart key lime juice. If you can’t find key limes, you can substitute traditional limes. The panna cotta can be served plain or with a dollop of whipped cream and crushed graham crackers, reminiscent of key lime pie.
- 2 tablespoons water
- 0.25 oz. gelatin, (1 envelope)
- 1 ½ cups half and half
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 ½ cups low fat buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons key lime juice (can substitute regular lime juice)
- Freshly whipped cream, optional
- Crushed graham crackers, optional
- Key lime slices or zest, optional
- Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let stand for 5 minutes until the gelatin softens.
- Meanwhile, bring the half and half, sugar, and vanilla to a simmer in a medium saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the gelatin mixture until it dissolves. Whisk in the buttermilk and lime juice.
- Pour the mixture through a strainer into 6 ramekins, molds or glasses. Let the mixture cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours until set.
- The panna cotta can be served as is or it can be inverted onto a plate. If inverting, run a small knife around the edge of each panna cotta. Then, dip the bottom of each ramekin into a bowl of hot water and invert it onto a plate. If desired, top the panna cotta with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, crushed graham crackers and a slice of lime or lime zest.