Hi! It’s been a minute. How are you?
Despite my absence from this blog for the past 4 years, I never stopped thinking about it, and all of you who keep subscribing everyday. I never stopped working on my love for food. It didn’t feel right for me to jump into a new recipe without giving you an update on what’s changed and how deeply my relationship with food runs now.
A lot has happened since the last blog post: going back to school (baking and pastry arts), moving into a new career (food photography), traveling, moving into my own space, gaining new skills, new relationships, new friends, finishing school, moving into yet another career (marketing/project management), and this COVID lockdown. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to chase my dreams and experience so much—I look back at who I was 4 years ago, and I realize I am far cry from that young girl who felt awkward around people and unable to communicate my feelings.
It has been a wild roller coaster ride of putting myself out there, being unafraid to fail with the love and support of family and friends. Honestly I would not have been able to do it without the community around me, lifting me up to where I’m at today. Sometimes I complain about my day to day, but if I actually think about it, I am in my dream industry, and I had no idea I was going to end up here 10 years ago starting off as a young graphic designer.
If there’s anything I learned, it is that you need to fail to succeed. Success looks different to every person and everyone around you is only human. Be kind to one another and learn how to talk to people and navigate disagreements in a respectful manner. Don’t run away from your problems, tackle them straight on and tackle them with the grit that people around you deserve!
Enough about me and my preaching, without further ado, here is a Panna Cotta recipe that you can make ahead of time for your party prep!
What is Panna Cotta you ask? It’s classically an Italian dessert of sweetened cream set with gelatin in some sort of mold (no cooking required despite the name meaning ‘cooked cream’ in Italian). I see it as a jello made of milk/cream that stands up on its own. Having gone through 4 semesters of school for Baking and Pastry Arts, I can tell you, it’s what chefs make at restaurants for an impressive but easy and delicious gluten-free dessert option. Panna Cotta can be flavoured in many different ways and Earl Grey is just one of my favourite! So scale down for date night or scale up for a house party.
In an endeavor to bring more consistency to my recipe results (and also partially because this is the way we did things in baking school), I’ve started to include the measurement in weight for ingredients. Measuring in weight is much more accurate than the use of cups and teaspoons (volume) because everyone packs a cup differently. For example, a cup of brown sugar can vary from 200 to 300 grams depending on how tightly you pack it! Hopefully you can use a scale to try out these recipes but just in case you don’t, I’ve left the volume measurements in as well.
Cheers to a good culinary therapy session,
Earl Grey Panna Cotta with Blueberry Compote
YIELD: 4-5 servings
ACTIVE TIME: 35 min
TOTAL TIME (active + inactive time): 3 hr 35 mins (3 hrs resting in the fridge)
CREDITS: Frances Lam
SUMMARY: This easy no-fail recipe creates an impressive and delicious Earl Grey Panna Cotta complimented by a refreshing Blueberry Compote! Make ahead to impress your date or for a house party!
- 2.25 cups (225 g) frozen/fresh blueberries
- 6.5 tbsp (80 g) white sugar
- Few grates of fresh nutmeg (optional)
Earl Grey Panna Cotta
- 0.5 cups (125 g) Milk (skim or whole)
- 3 tbsp (38 g) White Sugar
- 1 pinch of salt
- 2 Earl Grey tea bags
- 1.25 tsp (3.5 g) Knox Gelatin
- 1 tsp Vanilla Extract
- 1.5 cups (360 g ) Heavy Cream (35%)
- Transparent and neutral tasting vegetable oil (optional)
- Measuring cup and teaspoons or a scale
- Large Mixing bowl
- Small Saucepan
- Medium Saucepan
- Whisk (or a spatula to mix with)
- Panna cotta containers/molds (ramekins, glass cups, bowls etc.)
- Micro-plane grater (optional, required for grating nutmeg)
Blueberry Compote (Blueberry Sauce)
- In a medium saucepan, measure out your blueberries and sugar, stirring them together. Bring to a boil on high heat and immediately turn to just above a simmer for about 5-10 minutes depending on the consistency you like. Continue stirring until you see the sugar completely dissolved and juices on the bottom of the pan.
- Add in 3 – 4 passes of fresh nutmeg on your microplane grater (optional).
- Remove from the heat, transport to a container, and reserve in the refrigerator for later.
Earl Grey Panna Cotta
- In a small saucepan, measure out your milk, sugar, salt, and tea bags, and bring to a boil on high heat. Immediately remove from the heat, cover the saucepan and let the tea bags steep for 5 minutes.
- While your tea is steeping, measure out your vanilla extract and heavy cream into a large mixing bowl.
- Remove the tea bags from the milk (careful not to burn your hands), gently squeezing out the excess liquid back into the milk.
- Evenly sprinkle the gelatin powder on top of the warm milk, wait for 3 minutes, and whisk together until fully dissolved. If there are lumps, put the saucepan back on the stove on medium-low heat for 1 – 3 minutes and continue to whisk until dissolved (never let gelatin boil otherwise its ability to set the dessert becomes compromised).
- Add the milk mixture to the cream, mixing thoroughly, this is your earl grey panna cotta base. Let it come to cool.
- Divide the mixture into the containers you are using to set the panna cotta. If you plan on removing the panna cotta from the container before serving, be sure to swipe the insides with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil (this will make it easier to unmold). Or, if you are lazy like me, serve it in a wine glass (efficient and classy (I mean the recipe)).
- Cover the tops with plastic wrap and let the panna cotta rest in the fridge for a minimum of 3 hours, or overnight.
Assemble and Serve
- If you are unmolding your panna cotta, skip to the next step. Otherwise, divide the blueberry coulis evenly into each panna cotta container and serve to your eagerly waiting guests!
- If you are serving the panna cotta on a plate (not in the container), Pour some hot water into a shallow bowl. Run a sharp knife around the edge of the panna cotta dessert and dip the bottom of the container into water holding for a few seconds. Invert onto a plate. If the dessert does not fall out, repeat the hot water step and try again. Spoon the blueberry coulis on top for a beautiful look and serve!
- Knox gelatin can be purchased at your local grocery store (knox is the brand).
- This panna cotta can also be made with other types of tea, or without the tea entirely. Simply follow the instructions with the omission of tea bags and steeping for a plain panna cotta base.
- Always let your gelatin mixture come to cool before pouring it in the mold or else it may separate
- I used frozen blueberries to make this recipe, fresh blueberries may take a bit longer to cook down and create juices but should yield the same result.
- If you are choosing to use nutmeg in any recipe, one easy way to step it up is to use freshly grated nutmeg versus pre-grated nutmeg. It is SO much more potent and adds a little something extra without a lot of work.
Ten years ago, if you told me that I would be making my own delicious Blueberry Vanilla Jam for breakfast, I would have thought you were crazy. I had zero cooking experience and even less motivation to step into the kitchen. Just this past summer, I made 40 jars of this easy Blueberry Vanilla Jam recipe as favours for a friend’s baby shower and couldn’t be happier with the result!
This recipe is super easy and if I could, I would tell my past self to get off my lazy behind and follow it for some super impressive homemade jam. They are a wonderful compliment to scones, toast or tea-time biscuits. If you’re looking for a unique do-it-yourself gift idea, fill some 125ml Bernardin canning jars with this jam and hand them out!
In this recipe I use an ingredient called ‘vanilla bean paste’ which can be explained as a sweet liquid containing vanilla bean seeds. Since it is pre-bottled and available with the scoop of a spoon, it saves me the time and trouble of cutting open a vanilla pod and scraping out the seeds. The result is arguably identical as it still produces that wonderful flavour and speckled look in desserts and baked goods.
Another reason I use vanilla bean paste rather than vanilla pods because it is much cheaper, at least here in Canada. Generally, 1 tbsp of vanilla bean paste can substitute 1 vanilla bean pod, although this might be further clarified by the labeling on the jar. I use Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Bean Paste from PC Black Label which is available at Loblaws.
I hope you enjoy this Blueberry Vanilla Jam recipe as much as I do and remember to share your results with me using #francesmenu on instagram, twitter and Facebook!
Blueberry Vanilla Jam
YIELD: approx. 1200 ml
ACTIVE TIME: 40 min
TOTAL TIME (active + inactive time): 1 hr 10 15 mins
CREDITS: Frances Lam
SUMMARY: This easy recipe combines the sweet taste of blueberries and the lovely flavour of vanilla beans to make a Blueberry Vanilla Jam! Fresh, homemade jam that can be canned and distributed as tasty gifts, spread on crackers, toast or scones!
Blueberry Vanilla Jam
- 900 g (6 cups) blueberries
- 1 tbsp vanilla bean paste (I used Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Bean Paste from PC Black Label)
- 475 g (2 1/3 cups) white sugar
- 60 ml (4 tbsp) lemon juice (I used ‘ReaLemon’ bottled lemon juice)
- 150 ml (1/2 cup + 2 tbsp) water
- Large stockpot
- Stirring utensil
- Potato masher (optional)
- Put a small plate in the freezer. In a large stockpot, mash the blueberries with a potato masher for 1-2 minutes. Add lemon juice and water to the blueberries and cook on high heat, bringing to a hard rolling boil for 1 minute (it takes about 5 – 10 minutes to get to the boil). Reduce heat to a low boil and cook for 40 minutes, stirring frequently. Reduce to low heat, stir in the sugar and vanilla paste, then bring to a hard boil for 10 minutes.
- To test the jam, transfer a teaspoon onto the plate in the freezer and freeze for 3-4 minutes. Nudge your finger through the jam and if it wrinkles where your finger is pushing, it is ready. If you release your finger and the line refills quickly and the jam feels too watery, keep cooking and test at 5 minutes intervals until you get the desired consistency.
- In this recipe, I used blueberries that were very tarte. If your blueberries are very sweet, you need not add as much sugar. Add 80-85% of the sugar and do a taste test. Remember that you will be cooking down the jam after the taste test so it is okay if it is not as sweet. You can always add more sugar later.
- Always test your jam cold which is the reason for placing a plate in the freezer. This will replicate the temperature which jam will be stored at so you can get an accurate idea of the jam consistency.
- If you do not have a potato masher, skip the mashing step altogether, although you may need to cook the bluberries for longer (haven’t tried without mashing before).
- Stirring the jam mixture while cooking allows for moisture to be released more frequently, therefore cutting down cooking time.
- A full rolling boil means that the jam is bubbling vigorously at the surface and the bubbles are large (most likely your stove is on high heat). A low boil means that the jam still bubbles frequently, but the bubbles are smaller and the surface is not as disturbed (most likely your stove is on medium to high heat).
- These are the canning instructions I used: beginner’s guide published on ‘Food in Jars’.
- Keeps for 1 year unopened if canned. Best used within 2 months of opening, although I’ve had people tell me that they last way beyond 2 months after opening. (use your best judgement, jams can last pretty long because of the sugar and acid content).
Behind the Scenes:
Here’s some food for thought: When effort is put into the food styling, it cuts down time spent on photographing and post-editing. So even if it takes that extra 5 – 10 minutes to style your food, do it, because it may save you 40 minutes later on in the process. If you don’t know how, then research, look at other work and try out different styles to gain more experience. Try different ways to create contrast, repetition, emphasis and other principles of design in your styling. This is something I am constantly learning and it can be incredibly challenging.
For this shoot, a 60-in umbrella was placed to the back-left of the photography area and a white foam core board on the opposite side to reflect the light and fill in shadows. For the marble tabletop, 3 floor tiles were pushed next to each other, using the rough side of the tile to create a non-reflective surface. To make it look like one seamless table, I used photoshop to remove the lines in between each tile.
Reviewing the photos from this particular shoot, I learned two things. The first thing I learned was that a shallow depth of field can bring a sense of ‘a-pro-did-this’ feeling to the untrained eye. However, pushing it too far (making it too shallow) can make a photo look unplanned, unprofessional and distract from the focal point. The second thing I learned was that having extremely reflective copper items in the shoot can disturb the ‘natural window light’ style. The copper colour is much warmer to the neutral light temperature that was used and its warm colour had a far reach to the other items on the table. This made it seem as if light sources with different temperatures were being used, making it look messy at times. Please note that this is only undesirable in the ‘natural window light’ style that I was going for and maybe useful in other styles.
In hindsight, I should have probably done something to dull the reflective surface of the teapot to avoid the bright hotspots that compete with the focal point for attention. Vaseline maybe? If I used a dulling spray it probably wouldn’t be food safe to use afterwards. Will experiment further.
Mes amis, this is it, my hands are trembling in anticipation as I type this. A lot of pumpkin puree and eggs were sacrificed in the search for this recipe but nevertheless here it is—the perfect combination of Pumpkin cake and Graham Cracker Cream Cheese Buttercream (GCCCB) frosting. It is abso-freaking-lutely delicious.
The usual pumpkin cake recipe available online or purchased at the grocers will taste achingly sweet topped off with a frosting that is more sugar than anything else. If you prefer your desserts that way, you will want to steer clear of this cake. Those who know me, know that I have developed an anti-sweet tooth in the sense that the desserts I am starting to enjoy the most, are those that are subtle and ‘just-sweet-enough’. For those people with the same appreciation for subtle sweets, you will more than enjoy this cake!
There are a lot of pumpkin cake recipes out there use vegetable oil as the fat and I’ve tried many of them, however, they just don’t produce the same results that Cleobuttera’s recipe does with butter. I was going for a fluffy, moist cake that still held its structure so it could be layered—Cleobuttera’s recipe (with adjustments to fit my tastes and method) gave me just that.
The key to achieving a light and fluffy cake texture is to ‘cream‘ the butter for a long time; ideally 10 minutes on a stand mixer. In layman’s terms, to ‘cream’ butter is the act of vigorously mixing the butter, creating minuscule air pockets. This incorporates air into the fat structure and also increases the volume of the batter—so remember, if you’re doing it right, it gets bigger.
For the frosting, I was looking for that extra ‘zing’ and the addition of the graham cracker crumbs was just what it needed. This was inspired by one of the frostings in Tessa Huff’s book ’Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes’. It definitely gives the cream cheese buttercream a new texture and appearance which I love! The taste reminds me of a less-sweet Mcdonald’s McFlurry/oreo ice-cream. It pipes easily using tips with extra large holes for the crumbs to get through and not so well with smaller or patterned tips.
Please note that you need three cake pans of the same size to make this cake. Although not absolutely necessary, the reason for three pans is so that you can simultaneously bake all of the cake batter right away to take full advantage of the chemical reaction between the baking soda and buttermilk. This chemical reaction makes the cake rise and helps with the fluffiness. If you don’t put the batter in the oven right away, it may not rise as it should and you will be left with a dense cake. An alternative to having three pans is to prepare the batter three separate times using the same baking pan, a much more time-consuming method, but still doable!
Little else is more fitting than a Pumpkin Cake with Graham Cracker Cream Cheese Buttercream frosting served as dessert during thanksgiving celebrations! Imagine how impressed your family and friends will be when they take a bite out of this gorgeous three-layer cake!
I would love to hear about and see your own results! Please hashtag #francesmenu on Instagram,Twitter or Facebook!
Pumpkin Cake with GCCCB Frosting
(Graham Cracker Cream Cheese Buttercream)
YIELD: 1 x 9-in cake (3 layers)
ACTIVE TIME: 1 hr 30 min
TOTAL TIME (active + inactive time): 2 hrs 15 mins
CREDITS: Cake adapted from Cleobuttera’s ‘The Ultimate Pumpkin Cake‘. Frosting loosely inspired by Tessa Huff.
SUMMARY: This recipe makes a gorgeous three-layer naked Pumpkin cake frosted with Graham Cracker Cream Cheese Buttercream. It is moist, fluffy and subtle in its sweetness. Excellent for Thanksgiving and any fall occasion!
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 3/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 3/4 tsp ginger
- 1 1/4 cups unsalted butter (room temp)
- 5-6 tbsp butter (for coating cake pans)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 4 eggs (room temp)
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups (500 ml) canned pumpkin puree (room temp)
- 1/2 cup buttermilk (room temp)
GCCCB Frosting (Graham Cracker Cream Cheese Buttercream)
- 225 g (1 cup) cream cheese (room temp)
- 170 g (3/4 cup) unsalted butter (room temp)
- 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp heavy cream
- 140 g finely crushed graham crackers
- 3 x Mrs. Fields 9-inch round pans
- Wilton 13-in offset spatula
- Kitchenaid stand mixer or Kitchenmaid Hand Mixer
- Piping bag
- Wilton decorating tip size 12 and 1A
- Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Butter and flour three 9-in cake pans (see notes).
- Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, then set aside. In a separate bowl, stir together the pumpkin puree, buttermilk and vanilla, then set aside.
- Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar on medium-high speed until lightened in color and fluffy, about 8-10 minutes. If you are using a hand mixer, this will take longer.
- On low speed, add the eggs one at a time to the butter mixture, mixing well after each addition. Continue on low speed and add the ingredients in the following order: 1/3 of the flour mixture, 1/2 of the pumpkin mixture, 1/3 of the flour mixture, final 1/2 pumpkin mixture, final 1/3 of the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula between each addition. Stop mixing once you see the batter just combined. Do not overmix.
- Divide the batter evenly into the cake pans and bang them against a flat surface to level the batter. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the cake is done, when it shrinks slightly from the edges of the pan and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center. Another sign is that the cake springs back when you push down slightly on the center of the cake with your finger.
- Remove the cake pans from the oven and rest for 15 minutes before transferring the cakes from the pans onto a cooling rack. When the cakes are cool to touch, they are ready to be assembled or wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge to be used another day.
GCCCB Frosting (Graham Cracker Cream Cheese Buttercream)
- Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the butter and cream cheese together on low speed until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute. Stir in the sugar, heavy cream and vanilla extract, followed by mixing on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 7 – 10 minutes. Add the graham cracker crumbs and stir together until combined. The buttercream will have a grainy texture which makes it an absolute delight to eat.
- Place the first layer of cake on a cake turntable. Using a piping bag fitted with a large round tip (such as Wilton 1A tip), pipe a large circle of frosting onto the top along the edge. Fill in this circle with increasingly smaller circles of frosting until you reach the middle. Use an offset spatula to smooth and level this frosting. Center the second layer of cake on top and repeat frosting in the same manner followed by the last level of cake and frosting in the same manner.
- To smooth the sides, press the bottom side of the spatula against the side of the cake while rotating the turntable until you get a smooth finish. The goal is to scrape away any extra frosting so that the sides are smooth and straight. If you find that it is difficult getting sharp edges because the frosting is too soft, place the cake and frosting in the fridge for 10 – 15 minutes to create a firmer working surface before proceeding.
- Decorate the top of the cake using a size 12 Wilton decorating tip. Pipe pea-sized pearls with a slight tail in a zigzag pattern along the edge of the cake.
- Store the cake in the fridge after assembly. Before serving, let the cake sit for 15-30 minutes in room temperature.
- The cake and frosting can be stored separately in the fridge before assembly, up to 3 days (wrapped in plastic wrap). Both can be stored in the freezer for up to 2 months, as long as the cake is wrapped in double layers of plastic wrap and the frosting is sealed. Defrost in the fridge before use.
- To butter and flour a pan, take a tablespoon of butter and run it along the inside surface of the pan followed by adding flour and moving the pan around so that it sticks to where the butter is. The purpose of doing this is to keep the cake batter from sticking to the pan and ensure easy removal.
- DO NOT: skip the step of ‘creaming’ your butter for 10 minutes. This can be done by using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment turned to medium high speed. Creaming will aerate the butter and is a crucial step to creating a fluffy and light cake texture, as well as increasing the volume of the cake batter. More on the necessity of creaming here.
- DO: Bake the cake batter immediately after mixing to take full advantage of the chemical reaction between the baking soda and buttermilk. This reaction causes the cake to be tall and fluffy. The best way to do this is to preheat the oven and prepare the three cake pans before you start mixing anything. Mise-en-place! Mise-en-place!
- DO: alternate the mixing of the flour and pumpkin mixtures when adding to the creamed butter.
- DO NOT: overbeat the batter once you’ve started adding flour otherwise the cake will be tough.
- Use a piping tip with a large opening so the crumbs in the GCCCB frosting can squeeze through easily, such as the Wilton size 1A or 12 or 10 decorating tip. This frosting does not pipe well with patterned tips or small openings.
Behind the Scenes:
Photographing this recipe was an exercise in stepping out of my comfort zone and MacGvyer-ing some lighting setups. I was inspired by a style of food photography I saw on Pinterest that places a person behind a tabletop and in the shadows with the focus on a well-lit work station in front.
For the lighting on the body of the person (me), I was trying to achieve a balance between ‘hands floating in a sea of darkness’ versus ‘fully lit upper body and hands’. My thinking was a fully lit body would distract away from the ingredients, which is the focus. If my body was completely shrouded in darkness, my hands would extend out of a sea of black. I felt this would draw attention towards the illusion that they were floating, once again distracting from the ingredients.
Playing around with the lighting, I figured that I needed to direct the light so that it only hit the table (let’s call it the middle ground) and with very little light spill over to my body (background). Initially, I used an umbrella, but light was spilling everywhere and I was unable to control the darkness of the background.
I switched to a softbox, knowing this would help me focus the light but not to the degree I wanted. Unfortunately, I did not have a grid for my softbox, which would help prevent light spill to the sides, however I did have several foam core boards in black. I taped these together and propped them up using a lightstand, positioned right against the background and just touching the edge of the tabletop. This effectively stopped the light spill into the background, resulting in the desired effect—a well-lit middle ground and dim background. You can see these boards to the left of me in the photo above.
I am guessing that with a larger softbox, I would be able to achieve a more natural ‘window-lit’ diffused look, but I was pleased with the results nonetheless. I’m interested in trying this style again to see where I could go with it, also open to suggestions!