I fell in love with a little Vietnamese restaurant when I was pregnant with my first son. I craved salty, spicy, big, fat flavorful foods and Quang delivered on all of it. I would have eaten every meal for the nine months there, but I knew my husband just couldn’t take it, so I limited myself to 3 days a week. Once my son was born I’d bring him in to the restaurant and the servers would carry him around, so I could have 2 minutes to slurp up my pho (soup) and suck down a Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese ice coffee with sweetened condensed milk). The coffee was a bit of a ritual in those days. They poured hot water over coffee grounds in a little metal filter, which fit perfectly over a glass with sweetened condensed milk at the bottom. It was like sweet torture waiting for the slow drip to finish and yet I loved the anticipation. Once the hot coffee was done dripping over the milk I’d stir it all together and pour it over ice. The first sip, because I was too impatient to wait another second, was the slightest bit warm and cloyingly sweet. As the ice melted and the coffee chilled the flavor was perfection. Sadly, Quang now brings the Ca Phe Sua Da to the table already made and in sealed plastic cups, which is hardly as romantic, but it is still delicious and I manage to drink at least one, or two, or three a week. They don’t come in decaf, so unless you are planning to be up late, you may want to save this for lunchtime.
The strong bite of the coffee, mixed with the sweet creaminess of the condensed milk is like a perfectly balanced dessert, so I hardly worked to get this one right. I like my panna cotta with as little gelatin as possible, just enough to keep it together. This version requires even less, because I leave it right in the glass. I suppose you could invert it, but the stripes are so lovely, and it would be hard to get it to look so crisp and clean as it wiggled on the plate.
Vietnamese Ice Coffee Panna Cotta:
4 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons espresso powder (or 1/2 cup beans, slightly crushed)
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
For the espresso gelée layer:
1/2 cup brewed strong espresso
1 tablespoon sugar (more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon unflavored powdered gelatin
To make the panna cotta:
Freeze 6 to 8 straight sided glasses, no bigger than 8-ounces.
In a saucepan, over medium heat, bring the cream, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla bean, sugar and pinch of salt just to a simmer. Turn off the heat and allow the vanilla bean to steep for at least 10 minutes.
Pour half the cream/vanilla mixture into another sauce pot.
To one of the pots of cream add the espresso powder (or beans) and cocoa powder. Heat to a simmer and whisk until the powder has dissolved. (If you are using the beans, turn off the heat and allow to steep for about 20 minutes.)
If you are using the beans, strain the coffee beans and then return the coffee cream mixture to the sauce pot.
In two separate bowls, add 2 teaspoons of the gelatin, plus 2 tablespoons cold water. Allow to sit and bloom for 5 minutes. Be sure that all the gelatin powder is submerged in the water. If there is any dry gelatin left in the bowl, sprinkle some water over it.
Once the gelatin has bloomed for 5 minutes put the bowl over a double boiler and melt the gelatin.
Whisk the gelatin gently into the vanilla cream, then pour the panna cotta into a measuring cup or pitcher, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to cool. Check the panna cotta after about 20 minutes, to make sure it is thickening, but still pourable. If it is setting up too quickly, bring it to room temperature.
Melt the second bowl of gelatin and then gently whisk it into the coffee cream mixture. Pour the coffee panna cotta into a measuring cup or pitcher, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to cool. Check the panna cotta after about 20 minutes, to make sure it is thickening, but still pourable. If it is setting up too quickly, bring it to room temperature.
Once the vanilla panna cotta is starting to thicken slightly, slowly pour some into the prepared glasses. You determine how thick or thin you want the layers. Stick the glasses back into the freezer for about 5 minutes, or just until the vanilla layer is set.
As soon as the vanilla cream is set, slowly pour the coffee layer over it. Freeze the glasses until this layer is set, about 5 minutes.
Continue until you have used up all the vanilla and coffee panna cotta. Let them set for about an hour.
You can serve them just like this, or you can add a thin layer of the espresso gelee to the mix. I like the extra shot of coffee to contrast to the sweet of the panna cotta layers.
To make the espresso gelee:
In a small sauce pan mix together the espresso and sugar. In a small bowl bloom the gelatin, just as you did for the panna cotta, then melt it and add it to the hot espresso. Refrigerate the gelee until just cool, but still pourable.
Pour a thin layer over the panna cotta and allow it to set.
Serve it chilled. This can be made up to two days in advance.
As you can see, I made some that were just two layers of the panna cotta with a small layer of the gelee in between. You can play with the layers and come up with your own design.