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State fair's fare inspires honey pannacotta w/praline

The individual custards, bedecked with fresh strawberries, make pannacotta a pleaser for the eye and palate. (Amy Thielen / For the Enterprise)

Pannacotta is easily the simplest, yet most impressive-looking dessert in my arsenal.

Essentially an unbaked cream pudding, the gel comes courtesy of a little bit of gelatin mixed with cream and a flavoring or two. I pour the flavored cream into little cups and leave them to set up in the refrigerator for about two hours before serving.

This is the dessert I pull out when an unexpected dinner party arises, or when I need something absolutely foolproof. You can use all cream, half cream/half milk, half cream/half buttermilk or yogurt, or virtually any combination of dairy you like, but over time, I've learned to make it well by observing a few rules.

A soft set is better than one that's too stiff. It shouldn't be bouncy, like jello, but more like spoonable soft serve.

Throw an herb, a piece of lemon peel, a few whole spices, anything aromatic, into the cream as it heats. (Don't forget about chocolate and espresso, either. They're both fabulous.) When the edges of the cream start to tremble, turn off the heat and let it steep awhile before proceeding. The infusion of those essential oils will impart complexity to the finished custard.

And lastly, if you serve the pannacotta with whatever fruit is fresh and in season, you can't go wrong.

Usually, I like to add a dollop of honey to my pannacotta, for its mysterious flavor, but this week I took it further and stuck to honey as the only sweetener. (If a little is good, more is better, right?) Actually, I was inspired by something I had at last year's Minnesota State Fair. And not the spam curds, though I did try them and they were neither curdish nor particularly hammish, but predictably square and just kind of squishy.

But no, if you go to the little patio just outside the Minnesota honey display in the Agriculture/Horticulture building (that's Ag/Hort to us fair geeks), you'll see the stand I'm talking about: the honey ice cream stand. They do a brisk business peddling interesting frozen concoctions made from local honey. I have forgotten all of the flavors but the one that has been nagging me ever since, the honey-sunflower ice cream.

It seemed to me the only thing at the fair that tasted like living in the Midwest feels. The first bite tasted like the pure expression of the prairie: wildflower honey, golden grain, earthy seeds. The second, the heavy comfort of pure, straight-from-the-farm cream, the aroma of walking through a dry, sunny pasture.

Because I tend not to drag out my ice cream maker much, I bent the flavors of the ice cream into pannacotta form.

Was that lazy of me? Yes. Did it pay off? Absolutely.

P.S. I'd like to clarify something in last week's recipe for rhubarb lime icebox pie. The "condensed milk" in the ingredient list should have read "sweetened condensed milk." I'm sorry for the error and hope that everyone who made the pie guessed correctly and went for the sweet stuff.

Honey pannacotta

with sunflower seed praline

This was wonderful served with fresh strawberries. The pannacottas can be made individually, as I write below, or in one big bowl, although in that case it will take a few hours longer to firm up.

Makes 8 individual custards.

1 and one-half cups heavy whipping cream

1 and one-half cups whole milk yogurt (either Greek-style or Stonyfield)

10 tablespoons honey (One-half cup + 2 tablespoons.)

1 sprig fresh lavendar or rosemary

1 and one-half teaspoons gelatin

4 teaspoons cold water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Three-fourths cup sunflower seeds

Three fourths cup sugar

2 tablespoons butter

Prepare 8 small one-half-cup cups or molds and rub the insides lightly with vegetable oil. Set on a tray and reserve.

Pour the cream, honey, lavendar or rosemary, and honey into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let cool until just warm to the touch, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the powdered gelatin and the water in a small cup and leave for 5 minutes.

Add the gelatin to the warm cream, whisking until the gelatin dissolves. (If the cream has cooled too much, you may have to heat it a bit, but don't bring the gelatin mixture to a boil.) Add the vanilla extract and the whole milk yogurt, whisking until combined. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a pitcher, or a liquid measuring cup.

Divide the cream among the 8 prepared cups and move the entire tray of filled cups into the refrigerator. Chill until set, about 2 to 4 hours.

As the puddings set, make the sunflower seed praline.

Prepare a nonstick surface for the finished praline. Either set a silicone pad on the counter, or lay down a piece of oiled parchment paper, or lighly oil the back of a clean cookie sheet.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the sugar in a thin layer. Cook until the sugar begins to melt, and stir until it has melted into an evenly dark amber caramel. Add the butter and the sunflower seeds and immediately stir to coat the seeds with caramel. Pour out in a thin, even layer onto the parchment or silicone or cookie sheet. When cool, pound into uneven pieces.

To serve, dip the bottom of the pannacotta into a dish of hot water and run a thin knife around the perimeter of the custard. Turn upside down and lift one edge of the custard to release the suction. Serve garnished with a scattering of sunflower seed praline and a few fresh strawberries.