Sweet tofu panna cotta with chrysanthemum poached pear

I was mostly inspired by douhua, or sweet tofu soup, when I was conceptualizing this dessert. The idea of this silky sweet tofu that is swimming in a ginger-palm sugar-type of syrup just takes me back to Sundays at my local dim sum restaurant in Lomita(which sadly has since closed and been replaced by a Popeye’s Chicken, and that just shows you the kind of area I grew up in). I feel like with tofu, there’s always this misconception. People see it as this bland blob that hippies would eat instead of meat. But in reality, tofu is not meant to be eaten as a meat. It is creamy, soft, and while yes it is bland on its own, it is a sponge to other flavors. Truthfully, a more accurate comparison would be to eggs, since tofu has a custard-like consistency reminiscent of a quiche filling. Being both a creamy texture and high in protein, I see it as a healthier alternative to let’s say, ricotta cheese. Tofu can be used in things like chocolate mouse, cheesecakes, and even gnocchi! While it is bland on its own, when you pair it with things that have more flavor, tofu can be delicious! From just a simple pairing of tofu and soy sauce to mapo tofu, which is much more intense and spicy, there are a lot of ways to make tofu delicious! And while it is plain, with enough seasoning, you can even emphasize the sweet and nutty soy notes of the tofu, which is what I chose to do with this dessert!

For this recipe, I wanted to make the tofu into a sweet mousse, either like a blancmange or panna cotta. I personally love the combination of soy products with pears. I don’t know where that came from, but I find that the nuttiness of the soy works well with the sweet and almost starchy quality of a pear. So I went with poached pears as a garnish. For the poaching liquid, I used ginger and chrysanthemum tea. Chrysanthemum tea has very similar notes to palm sugar, and when commercially sold, tends to be really, really sweet. However, that works in this dessert, since all of that sugar will then be used to sweeten both the pears and the gelee; after poaching the pears in that liquid, I did not want to waste it, so I took half of the poaching syrup and transformed it into a gelee, just to resemble little gems or crystals. For more texture, since we just have a soft poached pear and a soft tofu mousse, I went with a kinako(toasted soy flour) crumble. I finished the crumble with a little tapioca maltodextrin, just so that it will not taste oily – the lack of gluten in kinako results in a dough where oils and fats are not properly absorbed, which would give the crumble this off-putting glossy look, so using the maltodextrin helps with absorbing the oil and creating a proper “crumb”-like texture and appearance. This dessert is 100% vegan and gluten-free, which was not my initial intention when making it, but I am glad that it came out that way, just because it means that there’s another dessert in the world that can be eaten by anyone without a soy allergy!

Makes 6 portions:
For the panna cotta:
470g silken tofu
60g white sugar
16g agar agar
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice

In a blender, puree together the ingredients until fully smooth. If using a Vitamix, just blend it for 5 minutes then pour into 6 silicone muffin molds. If using a non-Vitamix blender, then once the mixture is smooth, pass through a sieve and transfer into a pot. Stir on medium heat constantly for 5 minutes, just to dissolve the agar into the liquid. Then transfer into the muffin molds. In the case for both, freeze for at least 1 1/2 hours before attempting to unmold.

For the poached pears and gelee:
16oz chrysanthemum tea
A pinch of salt
5g sliced ginger
2 Bosch pears
1 tablespoon agar agar

Bring the tea, salt, and ginger to a simmer. Peel, halve, and core the pears. Place into the tea, and simmer, while keeping the pears submerged(I used a plate to weigh them down) for at least 15 minutes. They should be soft enough that you can cleanly poke them with a fork, knife or toothpick and they should give little resistance. Once so, place into a flat container, pour about half of the poaching liquid over them, and allow the pears to cool down in the refrigerator.

For the remaining liquid, strain out the ginger pieces. I prefer to place the ginger with the pears so that the ginger can steep into them, but that’s optional. With the residual liquid, add in your agar and bring to a simmer until the agar is dissolved. Pour into silicone molds(I used half spheres but really any kind of mold or container works). Refrigerate until fully set before cutting into the desired shapes(I wanted them to be angular, so I cut mine into quarter half domes).

For the soil:
1/2 cup kinako(toasted soy bean flour)
2 tbsp canola oil
1 tbss palm sugar
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp tapioca maltodextrin

Toss the kinako, oil, sugar, and salt together to form a dough. Spread the dough on a sheet tray and bake at 350 degrees F for 12 minutes. Transfer the baked dough into a mixing bowl and mix with the maltodextrin to form a fine crumb.

For plating:
Edible flower petals

Start by placing down one set mousse onto the plate. Then garnish with the crumble, gelee, slivers or slices of the poached pear, and finally, the flower petals.

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