No sooner had the spiced pumpkin custard and flaky pie crust touched his palate than a shudder ran through him and he stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening. An exquisite pleasure had invaded his senses, and he ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come, this all-powerful joy? He sensed that it was connected with the taste of the pie, but that it infinitely transcended those savors. Whence did it come? What did it mean?
My friend K judged a pumpkin pie contest last weekend, and when I asked him what about the winning pie had clinched it for him, he shrugged, with a little smile, and said, “It tasted just like my mom’s. It brought me back to my childhood.”
In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust was neither the first nor the last to reflect on the connections between eating and memory. But his narrator’s intensely-felt wave of nostalgia upon eating a madeleine dipped in tea is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in the history of food writing (heavily paraphrased with much humility in my first paragraph).
I haven’t yet read Remembrance of Things Past, but I think about Proust often. More specifically, I think about his madeleine. How lucky are we, I think, that the sensory pleasure of eating is made richer by its relation to memory, that not only can we superficially enjoy a delicious gingerbread cookie, hot from the oven, but that we can at the same time enjoy the flood of memories, perhaps the childhood memory of building snowmen in the cold, then sitting by a fire with a steaming mug of cocoa, or the memory of baking cookies for our own children, long since grown up and gone.
Sticky, dark, and golden, brown sugar is one of those ingredients that gives me “exquisite pleasure.” As a child I was an inimitable cookie-baking helper, instilled at a very young age with the importance of compacting brown sugar into the measuring cup; pressing it in with my small fingers, then dumping it into the bowl and watching the sugar slowly decompress, fall all over itself, like a crystalline creature that just can’t keep itself together.
My relationship with rosemary is newer, but assuredly growing to the same nostalgic proportions. In Oregon, rosemary flourishes year-round, so the sharp piney scent that accompanies plucking a sprig or two is never far away. And while brown sugar, too, is always in my pantry, it seems that I reach for both ingredients most often when the skies are dark and gray.
Panna cotta with fresh herbs is a far cry from the pumpkin-shaped cookies I stamped out as a child, but this dessert makes me feel nostalgic all the same. Maybe I’ve grown into a woman who steps outside her back door to fetch a sprig of rosemary, and who serves her desserts in quilted mason jars, but I still linger over the brown sugar as I measure it out, still enthralled by its glittering grains.
I like the ease and aesthetic of serving custards in half-pint mason jars, but if you’d like to serve your panna cotta on a plate or bowl, use custard cups or ramekins and lightly oil the dishes before pouring. Once chilled, run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen, and tip out onto your serving dish.
Rosemary Brown Sugar Panna Cotta
2 C heavy cream
¼ C brown sugar
½ vanilla bean, or 1 t vanilla extract
3” sprig of rosemary
2 ¼ t powdered gelatin
3 T cold water
Combine cream, sugar, rosemary, and vanilla bean in a small saucepan. Heat over medium-low and stir until sugar is melted. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit 30 minutes to infuse.
In a large bowl, mix the gelatin powder with cold water and let sit 5 minutes. Remove the rosemary and vanilla bean from the cream mixture and gently reheat. Pour the warm cream over the gelatin and stir until gelatin is dissolved. Pour into containers and chill until firm, 2-4 hours.