Vanilla Panna Cotta with Lillet-Strawberry Coulis

Happy Fourth of July, dear readers! I hope this summer holiday finds you surrounded by fun people, cold beverages and lots of great food cooked outside somewhere sunny. Around here, we celebrated like true Americans--obscenely large bone-in ribeyes on the grill, a wild arugula salad and an addictive fresh corn casserole with a good dose of grated onion and freshly cracked black pepper from which we literally had to hold back Baby C so she wouldn't eat the whole darn thing. It was really something. But whatever amazing savory dishes are on your picnic table, it's really not the Fourth without some sort of red, white and blue dessert, am I right, people?

That sexy lady up there is a lush, dreamy panna cotta, and the result of my absolute favorite recipe for it. It shouldn't surprise you given my past raves on the greatness that is Lynne Rossetto Kasper that it's a riff on her Farmhouse Panna Cotta from her genius book How To Eat Supper. Her recipe brilliantly includes sour cream, which gives a much-needed sharpening to a dessert that can often be just a round sea of cream, leaving a funky coating on your tongue that keeps you from really tasting the dish past the first bite. This panna cotta is indeed rich but so lovely and balanced that you will not put down your spoon until you've scraped the plate clean.

Panna cotta is so simple to make, it's absurd, with one of the highest pleasure-to-effort ratios known to man. It comes together in minutes on the stovetop, then you just whisk in the sour cream, pour it into cups and let it set up for a couple hours in the fridge and that's that. I've made a batch of this panna cotta on a weeknight, letting it set up in coffee cups and devouring it straight, but it's also a perfect canvas for some seasonal berries and a dessert sauce. I decided to dress up this panna cotta with a sort of berry coulis that I'd been brainstorming, using my beloved Lillet as a backdrop.

If you've never had it, Lillet is the kind of drink that transports you, in a way. A French aperitif (so maybe not the most American of choices for a Fourth dessert, but whatevs), it's a fortified wine that has the body of a liqueur, making it a great lower-alcohol alternative for cocktails. If I could spend every day, all summer long drinking Lillet and soda with a twist of lime or orange, oooh...mama would be so happy. I would also be very drunk and an irresponsible parent. So I've started thinking about other ways to incorporate the fruity, flowery, slightly herbal quality of Lillet into a few desserts, and it worked like a charm in the strawberry coulis I made to accessorize the panna cotta.

While boiling down the Lillet to a syrup, I pureed a mess of fresh strawberries with a bit of sugar, strained out the pulp and seeds, and whisked the juice into the Lillet syrup. Refrigerated alongside the setting panna cotta, the coulis thickens slightly and tastes of strawberries on steroids. Unmold the set panna cotta onto a plate, bathe it in coulis and dress up the whole thing with some patriotic fruit. I think you'll agree that this dessert deserves its own parade.

Vanilla Panna Cotta with Lillet-Strawberry Coulis

Feel free to experiment somewhat with the dairy in this recipe, making the finished dish as rich or as light as you'd like. I like this combination of heavy cream and milk, but have also had success with half and half, light sour cream and even buttermilk along with the cream. In any case, don't go lowfat with every element of this recipe, or it will get weird and grainy and just not worth it--always aim for at least half cream in the stovetop part of this equation to get the lush quality that makes panna cotta so, oh, oh...

Serves 4

1 tablespoon cold water 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin 1 cup heavy cream 1/2 cup milk (lowfat is okay, but not skim) 1/4 cup sugar Pinch of salt 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1/2 cup full-fat sour cream

1/2 cup Lillet Rouge 1 cup strawberries, hulled and quartered 1 teaspoon sugar

Strawberries and blueberries, for serving

Place the water in a small cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let soften for five minutes. Into a medium saucepan over medium heat, gently warm the cream and milk with the sugar, salt and vanilla--do not let it boil. When the cream is very warm to the touch, remove it from the heat and whisk in the softened gelatin until dissolved. Let the cream mixture cool for five minutes.

Put the sour cream into a medium bowl or a large (4-cup) glass measuring cup. Whisk the warm cream mixture into the sour cream, a little at a time, until the panna cotta is smooth. Pour the panna cotta into four custard cups, ramekins or coffee cups. Refrigerate until set, about 3 hours.

To make the coulis, pour the Lillet into a small saucepan over high heat. Boil it down until it reduces to about two tablespoons of syrup. Pour into a small bowl, set a sieve over the bowl, and set aside. Puree the strawberries in a food processor with the sugar. Press the puree through the sieve into the Lillet syrup and whisk to blend. Refrigerate until ready to serve--coulis will thicken slightly while chilling.

To serve, briefly submerge the bottoms of the ramekins in hot water until the edges of the panna cotta begin to loosen from the cups. Invert onto serving plates, drizzle with the coulis and sprinkle on a few strawberries and blueberries.