The brownstones are elegant, with sweeping roofs and tall, narrow windows that allow for optimal natural light. One has stately columns framing a front porch, another a chimney, evoking a cozy fireplace inside. Each house is an idealized fantasy of Brooklyn dwelling, the kind of home I’d dream of living in if only I could squeeze my body into a building just three inches tall and 1.5 inches deep. A building, I should add, that is constructed entirely from panna cotta.
Although I’ve worked as a baker, I’m someone with little patience for pastries that require careful detailing. Still, my Instagram feed is filled with elaborate confections: meringues fashioned into miniature fruits, towering pyramids of sculpted butter, cakes colored and adorned like fine paintings. These technically demanding aesthetic desserts require a commitment of time and attention that I’d often rather avoid. My own pastries, meanwhile, come together quickly, generally with a minimum of fussy styling. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to lusting after the showstopper-style dessert, spectacular in structure and form.
Enter the row house mold, the perfect mechanism for the lazy baker with an appetite for drama. When Aliza Abarbanel, my brilliant friend and a food writer, sent me the link to these silicone molds, I was immediately obsessed. Initially, I requested the molds as a holiday gift, but urgent visions of my own tiny house made of dairy haunted me — and patience has never been my strong suit. Three days later, the molds arrived, light and flexible, encased in pink tissue paper and smelling faintly of an ominous chemical substance. Once I had scrubbed them, I decided to make a panna cotta, thinking that gelatin might be a great medium for experimentation.
I went to work. In a pot, I heated one cup of heavy cream and a half cup of milk. Meanwhile, I bloomed three leaves of gelatin in cold water until they were supple. Blundering about in my tiny galley kitchen, I stirred in a quarter-cup of sugar, then the gelatin leaves until they dissolved. Once the mixture came to a boil, I whisked in a half-cup of mascarpone, some pulverized freeze-dried raspberries, and lemon zest. Then, with a squeal and a prayer, I poured the mixture into the molds and let the little houses set in the refrigerator.
Next came an act pastry chefs might revile me for or, at the very least, scorn as a facile trick: I put the chilled panna cotta in the freezer, hoping the treat in frozen form might be easier to extract from the mold. Freezing dairy like this can sometimes lead to wonky results, but in the morning, I took out my little homes, let them thaw in the fridge, and found the texture perfectly unchanged and the details intact.
Of course, I immediately took to Instagram to present the world with my showstopper, flaunting a photo of the exquisite structure, plus another in which I had demolished the third floor with a single bite. Then I skipped about town, delivering the “brownstone confections” to friends, joking that I was getting into the real-estate biz.
Really, though, I was thrilled by the straightforwardness of these delightful little molds. Whimsical, Instagram-worthy desserts with little fuss or skill required? Yes, please. Friends were convinced I had labored over their construction. How else would I have been able to render such an original edible structure? In reality, it was easier than making popsicles.
While the row house molds have a particular charm, the possibilities for desserts molded into unusual configurations are endless. Since then, I’ve bought others, including a delicate bird and the proverbial temptation apple. You might make butter in the shape of the New York City skyline, a milk-chocolate cherub, an ice-cream pear, or a teddy bear composed of pudding. Each time, I delight in the magic of making a sweet treat appear as something novel and unexpected and then revealing it for what it really is: a pastry sleight of hand, a masterpiece in an hour.
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