Champagne Panna Cotta with Sugared Grapes

I'm not really much of a New Year's resolutions sort of person, so let's just get that straight right now. But each year, while enjoying the hair of the dog that bit me, I do like to ponder areas in which I might like to improve. Like, say, managing my time better and becoming more efficient in all categories. So I'm starting with Champagne Panna Cotta with Sugared Grapes, because hey, it's like cocktails and dessert all rolled into one! An awesome way to multitask, I'd say. Guess I'm already ahead of the game. Happy New Year to me!
Don't let the fancy-pants look of this dessert fool you--panna cotta is dead simple and one of my very favorite things to make. If you've never made panna cotta and are rather mystified by the whole thing, you'll be hysterically pleased to learn that it's nothing more than gelled cream. Unless you come to my house, then your panna cotta will probably have booze in it, too. And we'll eat it in on the couch wearing pajama pants to ring in the New Year. That's just the way it is.

The pretty little sugared grapes that adorn the main event here actually manage to be even easier than the panna cotta itself. You can turn just about any fruit into a sparkling little gem just by coating it with a thin layer of egg white and rolling it about in sugar. True story. Putting these little jewels on top of something as crazy and lovely as Champagne panna cotta might seem like gilding the lily, but why not? We're ringing in the New Year here, people! Not to mention that this recipe is basically a truckload of pizazz for very little effort, which, coincidentally, is also something I hope to experience a lot of in 2011.

Happy New Year, darling readers!

Champagne Panna Cotta with Sugared Grapes Use whatever dry Champagne or sparkling wine that you like, but definitely choose one you enjoy drinking for the best flavor. I keep the sugar low here in the initial steps so that you can sweeten it according to your Champagne choice and your personal taste, so be sure to have a bit of extra sugar set aside so you can sweeten the custard to your liking before chilling. The sugared grapes can be made days in advance and frozen until you're ready to use them. The same technique can be used for tiny bunches of Champagne grapes, if you can find them, or any other fruit.

This is a great make-ahead dessert. In fact, the farther in advance you make it, the less boozy and more balanced in flavor the final result will be, up to 3 days ahead of when you're going to serve it.

With all its booziness, this is obviously an adult dessert, but I don't see why you couldn't swap out the alcohol for sparkling white grape juice or cider. Just be judicious with how much sugar you add to the cream before warming it.

Serves 8

For the panna cotta:

1 1/2 cups chilled Champagne or dry sparkling wine of your choice, divided 4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin (just shy of 2 packets) 3 cups heavy cream 2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided (see note) Pinch of salt 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the sugared grapes:

40 large green grapes 1/2 cup granulated sugar 1 egg white, at room temperature Pinch of salt Squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Put 1/2 cup of the chilled champagne in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let soften for 5 minutes.

Combine the cream, 2/3 cup of the sugar, salt and vanilla in a small saucepan. Warm the mixture gently over medium heat, but do not let it boil. When the cream is warm, whisk in the softened gelatin. Cool for 5 minutes.

Pour the remaining 1 cup of Champagne in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk in the cream mixture. Taste and add additional sugar if needed (I usually add about 2 more tablespoons at this point, depending on the Champagne I use). Divide equally among 8 individual ramekins, custard cups or coffee cups. Chill until firm, at least 4 hours, or up to 72 hours in advance (cover tightly with plastic wrap past the 4 hour mark).

To make the sugared grapes, wash and pat the grapes dry. Place the sugar in a shallow bowl.

Whisk together the egg white and salt in a separate bowl. Salt will help denature the protein in the egg white, so keep whisking for a minute until the white goes from gooey and slimy to something much more thin and liquidy. Whisk in the lemon juice.

Toss the grapes in the egg white mixture until coated. Place on paper toweling and pat until just moistened with the egg--you want them to have a bit of shine and still be damp, but with no visible drops of egg white clinging to them. Toss the grapes in the sugar and roll them around to coat completely. Use as garnish immediately, or refrigerate on a dry sheet pan until ready to use.

CustardsShauna Sever