I found it ironic that I started this blog with a focus on desserts, and then the next Sugar High Friday to come along had the theme of Sugar Low! Usually the only concessions I make in baking are to use low or nonfat milk, perhaps a smidge less butter or sugar, and then cheerfully espouse the philosophy that it’s better to have a small bit of perfection than a lot of mediocrity. (Case in point: the only time I’ve ever felt ill from eating too much sweet stuff was when I consumed too many Hershey’s Nuggets in a Valentine’s frenzy).
However, I happily got inspiration from Chinese New Year, which is just two days away. Chinese desserts are typically fruit and nut based, and are low in sugars and fats – one of the reasons why I can never get my mom to eat more than a tiny slice of my ultra-rich chocolate cakes. There is a traditional dessert for Chinese New Year called nian gao, which is a cake made with glutinous rice flour, fruit, and nuts, and then steamed. The result is dense, sweet, and sticky – honestly, I’m not too fond of it!
There is, however, another Chinese dessert, not associated with New Year’s per se, but in the repertoire of every Chinese mother I knew when growing up – almond tofu. This confection is really nothing more than almond flavored jello – when set it turns milky white, and bears a striking resemblance to tofu when cut into squares, hence the name. There is actually "almond tofu dessert" mix sold in most Asian groceries – you simply dissolve the powder in hot water a la jello, add milk, let it set overnight, cut into squares, and serve with canned fruit cocktail. I remember seeing this many a time at potlucks when I was a child.
While almond jello is certainly low fat, I wanted to see if I could make it a bit more sophisticated and combine it with the lovely creamy texture of panna cotta. I also wanted to add in some orange to tie it to New Year’s – in Chinese tradition, we give oranges and tangerines to friends and relatives at New Year’s because they symbolize wealth and good luck.
In the end, I used a combination of mostly milk and a bit of cream, flavored with almond extract and orange peel. I tried reducing the cream and using water, but the results were too bland and rubbery. So the cream stayed – you can get about six servings out of this so I don’t think there’s too much fat. I thought it came out pretty well – soft, pillowy, almond-and orange-scented comfort food.
Gung Hay Fat Choy, and best wishes for a happy (and healthy) New Year!
Almond Orange Panna Cotta
4 oz sugar
1 1/2 cups cream
zest from 1/2 orange
1 Tbsp almond extract
2 1/2 cups milk
1 Tbl gelatin powder
Combine the cream, orange zest, almond extract, and 4 oz sugar in a saucepan. Heat to scalding, then remove from the heat and let infuse for about 10 minutes.
Sprinkle the gelatin over the milk and let it soften for a few minutes, then stir into the cream mixture. Heat the mixture to scalding. Remove from heat and let cool until it begins to thicken.
Pour the mixture into individual ramekins. Cover and refrigerate overnight.