Food Opinion

Perfectly measured Black Sesame Panna Cotta: Immeasurable pleasure on a plate

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Megan Jane de Paulo shares a recipe for black sesame panna cotta but first offers a lesson on the importance of getting your head around culinary measurements.

ADD A PINCH of this, a smidgen of that and a dash of something else. A scruple is about 20 grains and you most likely had two gills of coffee this morning.

Old instructions in vintage recipes amuse us now but modern-day cooking directions aren't that much different.

We have thousands of recipes at our fingertips from all over the world and what makes them more fun is the variety in the measurement descriptions used. (Note: It’s not fun and frequently leads to failure!) In fairness, it’s also an issue because we often use cookbooks from other countries.

The ubiquitous "cup" is used in recipes varies from country to country — depending on the age of the recipe.

The Australian cup is 250 millilitres (ml) of liquid like water or milk. With an ingredient like flour, a cup equals 120 grams (g). Commonwealth countries – Canada, New Zealand, the UK and South Africa – use the same measurements. 

This system was adopted in 1965, so it’s not much of a step to realise that such vintage recipes are probably using the old imperial system involving pounds, ounces, drams and other amusing terms which sound like they belong more in a book of potions than a cookbook. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica contains a very detailed list of old-fashioned measuring methods with equivalent weights in grams.

What sounds antiquated to us Australians is more familiar to those cooking in the U.S., where fluid ounces, quarts and pounds are commonly used. The story of why butter is measured in sticks (between 113-115g) is that the dairy company Land O'Lakes started off in the 1920s, quartering pats of butter and selling the sticks individually.

The U.S. has two systems of measurement — the "customary cup", which is used in cooking and the "legal cup", used in nutrition labelling.

A U.S. customary cup of flour is equal to 120g. A customary cup of liquid is 236.588mls and a legal cup is 240mls. The difference is slight, so frequently, it’s not specified in recipes when used.

Japanese recipes tend to use millilitres, cubic centimetres and grams. It should be noted that a Japanese cup (カップ ) is equal to 200mls – although cups for measuring rice are 180mls – based on the old Japanese gou system.

We also have wild variations in tablespoon and teaspoon measurements — and these differences can throw a recipe considerably off course if:

  • in Australia, a tablespoon is 20ml (water)/15g (flour) and a teaspoon is 5mls (water)/2.5g (flour);
  • in the UK, a tablespoon is 18ml (water)/9g (flour) and a teaspoon is 6mls (water)/3g (flour);
  • in the U.S., a tablespoon is 15ml water/8g (flour) and a teaspoon is 5ml (water)/2.5g (flour); and 
  • in Japan, a 大さじ (big spoon) is 15 cubic centimetres (cc) and a 小さじ (little spoon) is 5ccs (with 15ccs equaling 15ml).

While it usually doesn’t matter when adding, say, vanilla extract to a cake batter, a gram or so of gelatine can make a huge difference to the success of a panna cotta.

Usually, a recipe will succeed in spite of these differences because of the ratio concept in cooking — a cup of something will balance out with a tablespoon of another ingredient and so on, as long as you are sticking to one system.

Let’s throw another complication into the mix: using cups to measure can affect the standard weight depending on whether you’ve sieved ingredients such as flour or cocoa or packed them tightly, which is often advised when using brown sugar. Or whether you have levelled off a cup measurement or have a heaped tablespoon.

There’s a pretty simple way to solve all of this discombobulation and that’s by using a metric kitchen scale for dry ingredients and a measuring cylinder or jug in millilitres for liquids.

Three countries are holding out against using the metric system – the United States, Liberia and Myanmar – although sometimes the UK and Canada veer from the path using the old imperial UK system of measurement.

I think we need to throw out our cups and measuring spoons and normalise using grams and millilitres in recipes until we irritate cooks in those countries enough for them to be allowed to be dragged into the 21st Century with the rest of us!

Panna cotta is often said to be an easy dessert to make (and it is, if you aren’t chasing perfection — that of texture, with the panna cotta being set and holding shape but also wobbly, while at the same time being smooth and creamy to taste.) A few factors can affect this: the fat content of the cream, the amount of powdered gelatine or gelatine leaves and so on. You might not notice a gram less in a spoon measurement, but you can clearly see it when using a kitchen scale.


Black Sesame Panna Cotta | Raspberry yuzu sauce | Raspberry cream | Black sesame and riberry tuile | Raspberries

Black Sesame Panna Cotta

  • 500ml heavy cream
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 10ml vanilla extract
  • 100ml milk
  • 7g powdered gelatine
  • 30g black sesame paste
  • 15g black sesame powder
  • a few drops of black food colouring

Sprinkle powdered gelatine over the milk and set aside to bloom.

Place cream, sugar and vanilla extract in a saucepan over low-medium heat.

Heat until the mix starts to simmer.

Remove from heat.

Stir in gelatine/milk mix. Place back on heat. Whisk slowly until dissolved.

Remove from heat.

Stir in black sesame paste. Place back on heat. Whisk until incorporated.

Is the colour a bit insipid for your dessert design? You can add some black food colouring to achieve a stronger statement grey.

Now, this may go against your natural panna cotta instincts. Transfer to a glass bowl/jug and chill in the fridge until the mix thickens. You don’t want to leave it too long for actual setting to take place, just until it becomes thicker but is still whiskable with no set lumps.

There is method to this madness — you want to remove it from the fridge and whisk through the black sesame powder at this stage. By waiting until it’s chilled and thickened, the powder will be suspended throughout the mix and not separate and coagulate down the bottom of the dish. (Of course, if you want the effect of layers with all the powder on the bottom or top, skip this step and knock yourself out!)

Once the powder is distributed through and suspended well, pour the panna cotta mix into your moulds/serving dishes and chill for several hours until set.

Raspberry yuzu sauce

  • 250g fresh raspberries (frozen would also work)
  • 40ml yuzu juice
  • 20g caster sugar
  • 20ml maple syrup

Heat the raspberries, sugar and yuzu juice over a low heat.

Mush up the raspberries to your heart’s content until it breaks down into a sauce.

Add maple syrup. Check taste to adjust.

You can strain and reserve a portion of this to flavour whipped cream.

Cool before serving.

Black sesame and riberry tuile

  • 15g butter, melted & cooled
  • 20g plain flour
  • 5g powdered sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 5g black sesame paste
  • riberry powder

Mix ingredients to a smooth batter.

Sprinkle riberry powder into the silicone moulds.

Use a small offset spatula to smooth the mix into the moulds.

Bake at 170° Celsius for 8-12 minutes. (You want them firm but not coloured from baking.)

Carefully remove from moulds. Cool on wire rack.

How to plate 

Pour some sauce into the middle of a dish.

Unmould panna cotta onto sauce.

Pipe whipped cream next to panna cotta.

Add tuile and fresh raspberries.

Megan Jane de Paulo is a Melbourne-based, inner-city latte sipper and social media provocateur. You can follow Megan on Twitter @gomichild.

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