Pomegranates have long been revered for their alluring beauty and powerful health properties. Their numerous ruby-like seeds have tempted Greek goddesses, brought good fortune to young brides, and symbolized the sweetness of heaven. Pomegranates continue to represent fertility in both Judaism and Hinduism. Even the fruit's name, which comes from the medieval French for "seeded apple," has left lasting impressions. Today, the French know the round fruit with its turreted crown as grenade, a word that gave rise to our term for the similarly shaped explosive device. On a sweeter note, grenadine, the syrup that flavors Shirley Temples and other cocktails, also takes its name from the pomegranate. Grenadine was originally made from garnet-colored pomegranate juice, though modern versions are often disappointingly made from high fructose corn syrup and red dye.
As natives of the arid regions of Western Asia and the Mediterranean, pomegranate trees thrive in warm, dry soils. Fruits mature directly on the shrubby Punica granatum tree and must be picked ripe. If left on the branch for too long -- or drenched by early rain -- they tend to split open and dramatically expose their seeds. Almost the entire U.S. crop of pomegranates is grown in California's San Joaquin Valley, where hot summers and cool nights produce juicy fruit with marvelous, deeply colored skin. Harvest generally occurs sometime in October and the piles of fruit in the markets are largest during November.
Look for pomegranates that feel heavy for their size. The juiciest ones have supple yet taut skin. There are two main schools of thought on how to take out the seeds. Martha Stewart, Amanda Hesser, and Merrill Stubbs are all practitioners of the slice-in-half-and-bang-with-the-back-of-a-spoon theory. This method works well but can be a tad messy, so I usually opt for the alternate strategy. Insert a knife one inch into the blossom end of a pomegranate then twist the knife to crack the fruit into two halves. Rather than slicing straight down the middle, pry apart the natural segments. Submerge the halves in a large bowl of cool water and pick out the seeds. They will sink to the bottom of the bowl while the spongy, white pith will float to the surface. Drain off the water and grab a spoon.
Orange Blossom Panna Cotta with Pomegranate Molasses
Panna cotta is Italian for "cooked cream," and is one of the purest, simplest, and most delicious of all Italian desserts. It takes less than ten minutes to prepare this silky pudding, which is made with just enough gelatin so that it wobbles. In this recipe, panna cotta takes on a decidedly Middle Eastern spin, perfumed with orange blossom water and dressed up with pomegranate seeds. You can find pomegranate molasses, a sweet and sour syrup, in most Middle Eastern markets.
2¼ teaspoons (1 package) unflavored powdered gelatin
1½ cups half-and-half
¼ cup granulated sugar
Vegetable oil, for the ramekins
½ cup plain whole milk yogurt
3 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of kosher salt
Several drops of orange blossom water
1 cup pomegranate seeds
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
Pour 3 tablespoons very cold water into a large bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the water and set it aside for 5 minutes to bloom.
In a small saucepan, heat the half-and-half and sugar over medium heat until the sugar dissolves completely and the mixture begins to simmer. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, lightly oil the inside surfaces of 4 small ramekins, glass jars, or dessert cups.
Slowly pour the warm half-and-half mixture into the bowl with the gelatin, whisking to combine. Add the yogurt, 1 teaspoon honey, vanilla, salt, and orange blossom water. (Be careful not to add too much orange blossom water; it's powerful stuff and can quickly overwhelm.) Divide among the prepared ramekins, cover, and chill in the refrigerator overnight or for at least 4 hours. (The puddings can be made up to 2 days ahead.)
Stir together the pomegranate seeds, pomegranate molasses, and remaining 2 teaspoons honey.
Unmold the panna cotta by gently pressing your fingers around the edges of the pudding. The panna cotta should pull away from the ramekin. Turn it upside down onto a chilled plate. Drizzle some pomegranate sauce on top of each panna cotta.
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