At a restaurant, panna cotta is often my dessert of choice, but before this weekend I’d never actually made one myself. I’ll definitely be doing it again though, especially as it turns out to be a relatively simple way of creating what I think is a rather lovely pudding . However, the process of following this British recipe (from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage: Everyday), has itself presented something of a challenge here in the U.S., highlighting perfectly some of the cultural and linguistic differences that exist between our basic culinary traditions.
The first problem was finding the elderflower cordial  that’s used to infuse the dessert. Elder is a shrub whose flowers and berries are used in various ways to make both food and drinks. When the blossoms are processed to make a cordial, it has a beautiful and delicately scented taste that is often described as being more floral than fruity. Although it wasn’t available to me in a regular super-market, it was actually quite easy to find by searching the local ‘British’ stores, which between them are stocked with a wide variety of imported goods. ‘Continental’ (in Santa Monica on Wilshire Boulevard) is a delightful store, that I can really only describe as an old-fashioned tuck shop. It’s full of unexpected treats – or more fundamental ingredients – that aren’t popular or available in the U.S., and as well as the elderflower cordial I bought some stem ginger and one of my favourite chocolate bars.
The second was a rather more technical challenge linked to gelatine, which happens to be available in the form of leaves (or sheets) in the U.K., whilst powdered varieties are more common in the U.S. Although this might not sound like an issue of much consequence it is, of course, critical to get the conversion right in order that the dessert sets properly. And those who know me would be more than happy to confirm that anything mathematical provides me with something of a challenge. Anyway, after some confusion (involving not only leaves and sachets, but also grams, ounces, teaspoons and tablespoons), it seems that I got there in the end, and after that everything really did go pretty smoothly. I chose to pair the panna cotta with a blueberry compote, and with its slightly tart flavour (even with the added sugar and cordial), and exceptional colour contrast it both tasted and looked good.
 Pudding: This word generally has a rather loose meaning in the U.K., where it is more-or-less synonymous with ‘dessert’. However, in the U.S., it is much more specific, where it refers to a sweet and flavoured (chocolate seems to be popular) milk-based dish with a soft consistency similar to custard (or blancmange, although this is another word not commonly used in the U.S., and as such may actually increase any existing uncertainty. Be warned: this will only be compounded if you watch the Monty Python sketch of blancmanges playing tennis!).
 Cordial: I’m fairly convinced that there’s no equivalent to this in the U.S., but basically it’s a concentrated fruit syrup that’s commonly diluted with water to make a drink. It’s not fizzy or alcoholic, and it’s not a powder. I’m not actually sure that it always contains much juice, and the result is simply a flavoured water drink popular with adults as well as children. To add to the confusion, it can also be referred to as ‘squash’ (e.g. orange squash), but has absolutely nothing at all to do with pumpkin!
Recipe: Elderflower panna cotta with blueberry compote
100 ml whole milk
250 ml double (heavy) cream
¾ oz caster sugar
2 tablespoons elderflower cordial
2 gelatine leaves (½ sachet powdered gelatine)
150ml plain yoghurt
1 tablespoon caster sugar
1 tablespoon elderflower cordial
Soak the gelatine for 5-10 minutes in order to soften it. If you’re using the powder, add to ¼ cup of cold water. Or, if you’re using the leaves, cover in cold water until soft and floppy, then squeeze out any excess water. Either way, the gelatine should then be added to the hot cream mixture. Stir until dissolved. Leave to cool to room temperature, stirring from time to time.
Once cooled, stir in the yoghurt until thoroughly combined. Pour the mixture into four 125 ml moulds, such as ramekins, and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours, until set.
To turn out the panna cottas, dip each mould very briefly in hot water (just a few seconds), then turn upside down onto a serving plate and give it a shake; if necessary, run a knife around the edge. Serve with the blueberry compote.