Panna Cotta with Warm Strawberry-Mango Salsa, Hazelnut Cookie Wafer, Prickly Pear Sorbet, and a Caramel Halo


This modern-looking creation was invented to illustrate the concept of a properly prepared composed dessert. Compose is a verb meaning to arrange, create, devise, fashion, form, or shape. In the case of a composed dessert, or dessert composition, several elements are arranged together on a serving plate in a way that is appealing both to the eye and the palate. I teach my students that any plated dessert must contain a minimum of three components. The individual elements should harmonize and also contrast at the same time. In choosing and arranging the elements of the dish, the chef should consider height, color, shape, texture, flavor, and temperature.

This version of panna cotta demonstrates all these ideas. It contains a refreshing, colorful fruit salsa that is served slightly warm; a sweet, transparent strawberry-orange syrup; a crisp and crunchy nut cookie; cold, creamy, snow-white panna cotta; a vibrant purple-toned icy sorbet; and, finally, a fragile, buttery caramel halo and a caramelized macadamia nut—both of which provide height as well as additional taste and texture.

The fact that this dessert has so many components means that you have a lot of options, should you wish to simplify the presentation. For large parties or banquets, consider eliminating both the caramel halo and the caramelized macadamia nut. Instead, place the sorbet directly on top of the panna cotta, using a small, thin round of sponge cake underneath to keep the sorbet from sliding. You will still have the wonderful crisp texture of the hazelnut cookie. Another option is to substitute Florentina Halos from the Blancmange recipe for the Caramel Halos called for here. Blancmange is, as a matter of fact, very closely related to panna cotta.

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  1. Unmold as many servings of panna cotta as you anticipate needing for service by very gently warming the exterior of the ramekins. You may do this either with a torch or by briefly immersing the outside of the ramekins in hot water. To unmold the desserts from Flexipans, place the panna cotta in the freezer either directly after filling the forms or transfer them from the refrigerator to the freezer 30 to 60 minutes before serving. Push the frozen desserts out of the Flexipans, 1 at a time (pushing from the reverse side to turn each indentation inside out), and place on a sheet pan lined with baking paper. Set aside at room temperature or in the refrigerator to thaw. Be certain that the desserts are cold but not frozen before plating.
  2. Strain the syrup from the macerated strawberries that are part of the salsa recipe and place the syrup in a saucepan. Remove a small amount of the syrup and mix it with the cornstarch to make a slurry. Stir this into the remaining syrup and bring to a boil while stirring. Remove from the heat and allow the syrup to cool. Strain the syrup, place in a piping bottle, and reserve at room temperature.
  3. In a small bowl set over a warm water bath, combine approximately 2 parts prepared strawberries to 1 part prepared mango chunks to make just enough salsa for the number of desserts that you will be serving right away. If the 2 types of fruit are mixed together and left to sit, the red juice from the strawberries will stain the mango.
  4. Presentation: Place a 5-inch (12.5-cm) plain cookie cutter or ring in the center of a dessert plate. Spoon approximately ½ cup (120 ml) warm fruit salsa inside the ring and lightly press the top of the fruit to press it into the shape of the ring and create an even surface on which to place the hazelnut wafer. Remove the ring. Pipe approximately 2 tablespoons (30 ml) strawberry syrup over the fruit. Place a reserved panna cotta serving in the center of a hazelnut cookie wafer and carefully place the wafer on top of the fruit disk on the dessert plate. Gently place a small scoop of prickly pear sorbet on top of the seam inside a caramel halo. Use a palette knife to transfer the halo and sorbet to the top of the panna cotta. Carefully thread the pointed tail of a caramelized macadamia nut through an opening in the top of the halo, or simply lean the tail against the halo, and let the nut rest on the panna cotta in front of the halo. Decorate the sorbet with a small fig leaf or mint sprig. Serve immediately.