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A Dinner With Chef Krystal Craig: Turn Indulgent Drinks into Desserts

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Austin-born chocolatier and Executive Pastry Chef Krystal Craig brings you to Italy with a bite.

By Sloane Wick, Photos courtesy of Krystal Craig

Austin-born Krystal Craig is the executive pastry chef, chocolatier and co-owner of Intero, an Italian restaurant focused on farm-to-table, sustainable practices.

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At only 21 years old, Craig co-founded her first dessert company, Arte y Chocolate, which centered on handcrafted artisan chocolates made with sustainably sourced ingredients. After years of creating delicious treats for a multitude of Austin establishments like the Four Seasons, Jeffrey’s and Hotel Van Zandt, she focused her skills and time on opening Intero with Executive Chef and Kitchen Director Ian Thurwachter. While Craig loves sweets and adores working with chocolates and desserts, she likes to strike a balance and believes moderation is key. This is what makes the Craig and Thurwachter duo so great: the combination of their knowledge of savory and sweet.

Growing up in and around the local food scene along with an inspirational trip to Italy (not to mention her personal affinity for chocolate) were the foundation of Craig’s career and show themselves in her food, including her Espresso Panna Cotta with White Chocolate and Hazelnuts.

When you were younger, what foods made you feel the best?

Mostly all the chocolate types (brownies, ice cream, chocolate bars), but a few savory side standouts were also broccoli, mashed potatoes. I’ve considerably expanded my palate as an adult, of course.

What makes this dish special to you, or what is your fondest memory of this dish?

When I was younger I didn’t appreciate panna cotta. My dad made it every once in a while and tried to show me how to make it, but I wasn’t into creamy desserts, outside of ice cream, for the longest time. A trip to Italy broadened that perspective, and I’ve come to absolutely love making and eating panna cotta. Making it now reminds me of those times in the kitchen as a kid, and the inspirational trip to Italy I was fortunate to take. If you’re a creative type, panna cotta is truly a perfect dessert vessel for highlighting any flavor or combinations of ideas you want.

Is there a certain ingredient that makes your version of this dish different than other versions?

Panna cotta is traditionally pretty simple. I do my best to honor that by executing the recipe well, while still striving to create an elevated flavor profile from layering familiar or seasonally inspired high-quality components with it.

If you had to describe your dish as a feeling to someone who has never had it, what would you say?

Ha, this is a funny one because it does have a little story. Even though the flavor combination of this recipe is as familiar sounding as they come, I actually had not paired them all together with one another until a friend of mine said he wasn’t into panna cotta. I knew how much he liked white chocolate mocha lattes, so I made him this version one year to try and change his mind. He loved it. From that, I’d probably describe it as your basic-sounding, not-so-basic-tasting dessert pleaser for anyone who enjoys a little coffee with their cream and chocolate, in that order.

What else would you like to mention?

If you can eat the foods that give you good memories, do so. Life is better that way! Even if panna cotta on its own isn’t special to you, use the recipe to make one with flavors that do provide a positive recollection. You can tweak this recipe to try your own versions of panna cotta. Even if the adjustment is as simple as adding cinnamon to the garnish topping mix, or adding something else on top entirely, or being more playful in omitting the espresso and adding a different flavor of tea, milk alternative, chocolate, etc. You can get creative with it!

Espresso Panna Cotta With White Chocolate & Hazlenuts

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*Serves 12-20 depending on preferred ramekin or jar size.

I love turning components of my favorite indulgent drinks into dessert form. Although this recipe is not as overly sweet as it may sound, think of it as a white chocolate latte with hazelnuts for the perfect post-dinner coffee course. It’s easy to prepare ahead of time, so you can assemble it quickly when ready to serve.

Ingredients:

Panna cotta base recipe:

½ cup espresso (or sub coffee)
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon gelatin powder (or 8 sheets gelatin and 2 cups ice water)
1 ½ cups milk
6 ½ cups cream
1 ½ cups sugar
½ tablespoon vanilla
White chocolate and hazelnut crumble topping recipe:
16 oz couverture-quality white chocolate of choice
8 oz hazelnuts, toasted

Directions:
  1. Prep espresso and set aside.
  2. Bloom the gelatin.
    Note:
    For powdered gelatin: In a small bowl, add it to the cold milk and set aside to bloom.
    For sheet gelatin: Add to a bowl of cold ice water to bloom for several minutes until completely soft. Once bloomed, remove gelatin from water and “ring out” excess water from gelatin and set aside.
  3. For powdered gelatin: Heat the cream, sugar and espresso in a pot on medium-low heat until the sugar is fully dissolved and hot to the touch, but not simmering. Stir constantly.
  4. Once hot, add the milk and gelatin mixture. Stir until well combined and dissolved.
  5. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.
  6. For sheet gelatin: Combine the milk, cream, sugar and espresso in a pot on medium-low heat until the sugar is fully dissolved and hot to the touch, but not simmering. Stir constantly.
  7. Turn off heat and stir in the gelatin until fully dissolved, then stir in the vanilla.
To Portion

Pour the panna cotta base into a large measuring cup
Note: Use a measuring cup with a spout to avoid messy portioning.
Place jars or ramekins of your choice on a baking pan. Pour base mixture into them, dividing evenly, and leave enough space from the top for the crumble topping to be added later.
Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 4 hours or more before serving.
*If desired, and if you have a mini kitchen torch, you can quickly and lightly torch over the top of the panna cotta base in the receptacles to prevent air bubbles for a smoother finished look, but you will be adding crumble toppings to cover.

White Chocolate & Hazelnut Crumble Topping Recipe

16 oz couverture-quality white chocolate of choice
8 oz hazelnuts, toasted

Directions:
  1. Heat oven to 250. Prep silpat or parchment paper on a sheet pan.
  2. Heat and melt down white chocolate in a bowl over a double boiler.
  3. Once melted, remove from heat and spread the chocolate on the lined pan.
  4. Bake for 8-12 minutes. It will start to look more vanilla colored. Remove from the oven, scrape up and move the chocolate around, then spread back out. Place back into the oven for another 8-12 minutes. Repeat one to two more times for a nice light to medium caramel color of your preference.
    Note: The chocolate will seem a bit dry and hard to move at times, but work it as best you can.
  5. Once it is roasted to a caramel color, remove from heat and set to cool.
  6. After the white chocolate is completely cool, break it apart into smaller pieces by hand.
  7. Combine the toasted hazelnuts and white chocolate into a food processor to roughly blend together and break up to a medium texture crumble.
    Note: Watch to not over grind to avoid making a paste instead of a crumble. Alternately, place the mix into a good old-fashioned gallon storage bag and crush with a pot.
To Serve

Once the panna cotta is fully set and you’re ready to serve, pull it from the fridge and top each serving with a generous and even amount of the topping. Enjoy!


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