Nature bestows her own, richest gifts
And, with lavish hands, she works in shifts… – Gertrude Tooley Buckingham, The Four Seasons
The summer pop-up shops are closed, windows dark and gathering dust. The streets are emptier without the tourists, and that emptiness is made all the heavier for the recent days of grey skies and intermittent rain. A tourist town when it is no longer tourist season is reappropriated by its residents, as everyone scurries to the market and back or begins to think of the holiday season. We wave at each other through shop windows or bump into each other on the street, stop and chat convivially for a few minutes, promising to drop by for a drink. We now make the time, have the time, to meet friends for a meal.
A hotel when it is no longer tourist season is kind of wonderful, quiet and calm. There is something rather romantic and mysterious about wandering the darkened halls of a hotel off -season, at this time of year. The winter clients trickle in late in the day and fill those corridors with noise and laughter and footsteps and I know that I’ll be able to take my time with them while they are enjoying a late-afternoon glass of wine, I’ll be able to chat with them over breakfast without the hustle and bustle of a packed dining room. A fire crackles and blazes in the fireplace every morning, the place settings, plates and cups and saucers, are gathered together on one or two tables to create a cozy, familiar atmosphere, and are laden with jars of jam.
Low season is also the time not only for deep cleaning, but for renovation! We have chosen the cool new wallpaper and carpeting for the annex, the 3 rooms next door to the hotel. The girls are packing away pillows and blankets, the furniture will be donated to the local Emmaus charity, and the painter and carpenter are ready to go in. We’ve told the whole team that once the renovations begin, they are forbidden to go in to look. We want their surprise at the total effect once it is complete. We still have to select fabric for the curtains and choose the furniture, but there is time. It is all very exciting; the annex has not been renovated since the 1970s and is old, faded, outdated, and with a sad collection of leftover, cumbersome bits and pieces of discarded furniture that needs to go, every stick of it.
Jean-Pierre has been tending to the garden, doing those winter things that must be done even if it means wearing rubber boots and a heavy coat. He rakes up the damp, dead leaves scattered everywhere, clips back the roses and trims the linden tree, and cleans out the birdhouses that he built in the spring, stumbling upon the occasional surprise. We wait impatiently for the persimmons and kiwis to ripen and still have to climb the olive tree and pick all of those gorgeous, plump, black olives.
Square birdhouses give birth to square nests. And square eggs?
And I’ve finished writing my cookbook and have sent in the manuscript. This cookbook thing was quite the adventure and even though so many of my friends have written multiple cookbooks, I felt like I was the very first person ever to have written one. I hit send with a smug self-satisfaction of having achieved something grandiose, succeeded a monumental challenge! Of course it isn’t true, but I look back on the past 6 or 8 months, the 80 recipes or so I developed and tested, the team of testers I juggled, the afternoons spent researching, reading, typing, developing, and I feel a real sense of achievement. I have also learned so much, not only about the process of writing a cookbook – which is still as yet far from over – but about my own capabilities; I discovered that I know more about cooking than I ever gave myself credit for, that my instinct is pretty darn solid.
And to thank each and every one of you for patiently awaiting my return to Life’s a Feast, here is a special not-orange dessert, a smooth and sensuous panna cotta, our favorite dessert, kissed by the warmth of a good cognac and paired dramatically with a luscious salted butter caramel sauce. Spectacular.
- 3 cups (750 ml) whole milk or a combination of heavy cream, light cream/half-and-half and milk (I used 2% lowfat)
- 2 teaspoons (1/4 ounces, about 8 grams) powdered unflavored gelatin
- ½ cup (100 grams) granulated white sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 teaspoons cognac or to taste, I used Martell Noblige Cognac
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated white sugar
- 3½ tablespoons (50 grams) salted butter
- 1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
- In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, pour 1½ cups (375 ml) of the cream/milk mixture and sprinkle the gelatin on top; gently tap the gelatin under the surface of the liquid. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to soften the gelatin.
- At the end of the 5 minutes, turn the flame under the pot to low and allow to heat very gently for 5 minutes until the gelatin dissolves completely, whisking carefully and continuously. Do not allow the milk to come to a boil; if the milk starts to steam too much, simply pull the pot off of the heat and whisk until the 5 minutes are up.
- Whisk in the sugar and the rest of the milk or milk/cream mixture and continue to heat over low until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is thoroughly warmed through.
- Whisk in the vanilla and cognac, taste and add more cognac if desired.
- Remove from the heat.
- Place a rounded teaspoon of the caramel in the bottom of each glass. Carefully pour the hot panna cotta evenly between 6 glasses, verrines or ramekins.
- Cover each glass with plastic wrap and slide into the refrigerator to chill and firm overnight.
- Melt the sugar in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat and cook until completely melted and caramel in color.
- Lower the heat to low and whisk in the butter in about 3 or 4 additions.
- Continuing to whisk, add the heavy cream in a slow stream; the caramel may foam up, but keep whisking, as it will calm down once all the cream is added and will turn to… a smooth caramel.
- Once it is smooth and creamy, remove from the heat and allow to cool at least to tepid before serving.