There is a new restaurant here in Portland, and I am weak in the knees. Downright smitten, in fact. It’s called June. Reading the menu is something like meeting eyes with the cute boy in algebra class in 9th grade, which is funny because on their website home page, the chef thanks his grandmother (June). But nonetheless, this menu suddenly opens your meek little possibilities, and you find yourself feeling all grown up inside.
I’ve been there twice this week, and once with Hanna last week. That was my first time. Consider this: We were halfway through whisky and Benedictine concoctions when we decided to order. I had my eye on a foraged greens salad with an egg, and I heard Hanna ask the server for a fish terrine and a plate of carrots.
“Do you want me to bring the fish out as a starter and the carrots as a main?” The server asked. Man, he got that backwards, I thought.
“Good idea!” Hanna said.
That’s when I did a double-take. Wait, he meant to suggest a plate of carrots as a main course? That seemed to elevate the spring carrot to a level it probably well deserves and rarely gets. That’s my kind of restaurant.
I could tell you about salmon that gave me pause from my conversation for a good 10 minutes while I contemplated how flesh could be so supple and buttery, and what are those little things that look like dried figs but have a pungent, almost shocking, burst of flavor? I can’t place that. Oh, it’s sweet and sour radishes, of course. Wait, what the heck is a sweet and sour radish and why does it taste so weird, yet alluring? Don’t even get me started on the warm apple vol-au-vent. I was useless at that point. I was basically having a date with puff pastry and perfectly pliant quarters of apple crowned in vanilla ice cream and warm caramel. Just like every other apple pie, you’re thinking. Only if every other apple pie subtly and swiftly blows your mind. But that’s not what I came here to talk about.
What I’m really going to talk about here is crème fraîche panna cotta. It came with those carrots I was talking about, and when I first read the words crème fraîche panna cotta, it almost brought me to tears. Finally, someone who understands me. You see, I’m one of those people that would, if given the occasion, eat crème fraîche all by itself. That’s right. Just me a sparkling clean spoon and some crème fraîche. Of course, since that is monumentally uncivil, I often disguise my crème fraîche with lots and lots of fresh berries, which isn’t a bad thing, either.
But crème fraîche panna cotta! What a perfect foil to unadorned crème fraîche gluttony. Here was my ticket to getting a whole tableful of unsuspecting diners on board with my habit. Since I happened to be hosting the Spring Communal Table dinner the very next night, I suddenly HAD to make this. Lucky for me, I had some homemade crème fraîche (see below). All I needed was a little gelatin, some milk, and a vanilla bean and I was off to a running start.
Okay, a word: I know you can buy crème fraîche, but really, why bother? In a recent New York Times article, DIY Cooking Handbook, Julia Moskin gives exquisitely easy instructions for making crème fraîche. This knowledge has forever changed my life, my grocery bill, and the second shelf of my refrigerator. Once a luxury product, I now have crème fraîche on hand almost all the time. Not only will you save money making it at home, but you will still taste a kiss of fresh cream, and that’s all I have to say about that. Plus, it’s so fun to check on throughout the day, which coincidentally you don’t have to do, but the delicately sweet, yet faintly tangy aroma draws you in. It beckons. If you make it from scratch, you’ll have to give this recipe a bit of foresight and start at least a day ahead, but the crème fraîche will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks. If you’d prefer to buy pre-made crème fraîche, just skip the first step and throw this whole thing together in the blink of a morning coffee, as I did.
Crème Fraîche Panna Cotta
-2 cups heavy cream
-1/4 cup buttermilk
-1 envelope unflavored geletin
-1 cup whole milk
-1/4 cup sugar
-1 vanilla bean, split
To make the crème fraîche, pour two cups of cream and the ¼ cup of buttermilk into a non-reactive bowl (glass or stainless steel), give it a good stir, cover with a kitchen towel and leave it for about 24 hours. That’s when the cream suddenly sets and becomes less liquid, more pudding-like. Check on it now and then. In my kitchen, it takes 24 hours to become creamy and have just the right amount of tanginess. This process can take anywhere from 6-48 hours. Give it a stir now and then and taste a nip.
When the crème fraîche is ready, give it a good whisking until smooth and a little lighter. Set aside. Next, sprinkle the gelatin over 2 tablespoons of cold water. Let it stand for a few minutes until it softens and blooms. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, bring the milk, sugar, and vanilla bean to a simmer. As soon as you see a consistent pattern of bubbles, turn the heat off and stir in the gelatin until it melts in. Pull out the vanilla bean and gradually whisk the milk mixture into the crème fraîche. Pour into six 6-ounce ramekins. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day. Serve with a ripe red strawberry, or a few perfect raspberries, or just a sparkling clean spoon. That’s all it really needs.