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up all night

Recipe: lychee panna cotta

OMG, I woke up at 9 this morning. That is incredibly late for me, especially as I had the intention of waking up at 5:30. I’m trying to be patient and accept that I need to let the side-effects of radiation play out, which means sleeping way more than I ever wanted to (Manggy is gasping with indignation at that, I’m sure!) The other reason I slept in this morning was because I was up late shooting something special. Can you guess what it was? Not something in the sky…

For as long as I can remember, we had these funky, fleshy, gangly plants growing in our house. And whenever I visited a member of my mom’s family, they had one or two or three or more of these plants in their house too! It all started when Grandma came to the States from Taiwan and carried a leaf wrapped in wet paper towels and plastic bag. She gave it to my mom who started a plant in her house. Every time one of us bought our first house, we were given this plant (leaf). They grow into the most unwieldy things that must be trimmed back (give the leaves to your friends to start their own) periodically, and from time to time will grace your house with a bloom.

here is a bloom that will open tonight: it’s almost alien looking

can we get a puppy schnoz for scale? thanks, ‘weah

In my (Mandarin-speaking) family, we always called it tan hua. Then someone said it was called a century plant in English. Whoever said that was wrong, but those were the pre-Google days. I have since confirmed that this is in fact, a night-blooming cereus (aka Queen of the Night).

You know when a bloom is coming, because it takes about 2.5 weeks for the buggers to go from tiny bud to ginormous flower. The flower only blooms at night and it only opens for about 6+ hours and then it’s done – no more blooming action! It’s quite a treat and I remember it was one of the few occasions that my mom would let me stay up past midnight as a kid. My favorite part was the delicate fragrance that the flower would release – almost a floral, tea-like scent that permeated the entire house. Grandma said it was a good omen for the house. Hey! She’s a feng shui expert! Good omens are good…

in profile

fresh face

Not only was it good feng shui, but it was the first time Jeremy had witnessed a Queen of the Night bloom! My mom called in the evening to ask if it had started opening. Then she said, “Can you smell it yet?” I stuck my nose in the flower and couldn’t detect anything (and I have a GOOD nose). I told her no and began to secretly worry that my plant was somehow defective. She assured me it would start to smell in a couple of hours. How did she know?! Well, she was right – that lovely perfume began to release around 10 pm.

It was also a nice opportunity to mess with my flashes. See folks, this is one flower you will not be able to shoot in natural light unless you have a hot house in the Arctic or Antarctic circles and I have my doubts if the plant will survive even then. An argument to learn to use your damn flash ;) You can see the series of pictures on the photoblog. The cool thing is that I have two more buds that are going to bloom tonight! Sweeeet.

speaking of sweet… lychees

Somehow this recipe was forgotten and has been languishing in my archives for a few months. Please, forgive me.

What I love about lychees is that they have a subtle, floral flavor to match the plump and juicy flesh. [There goes Manggy running out the door – he hates lychees!] Since I can’t get fresh lychees very easily around here, I use canned. They are different beasts, yes, but I still enjoy the canned variety as well (just imagine how painful it must be if you’re standing underneath when the cans drop off the trees…)

raspberries for color and tartness

Ah yes, the recipe is lychee panna cotta. Remember when I said that FIL is a chocolate fiend? Most of the people on that side of Jeremy’s family are chocolate fiends. Personally, I think people who limit themselves to chocolate-only desserts are a little close-minded and I have to exercise a lot of patience with them. The true dessert afficionado knows that there are so many wonderful confections out there that don’t involve chocolate. Luckily, MIL loves a lot of the cream-based or fruity desserts that I delight in. When I first met Jeremy, he would wrinkle his nose at non-chocolate desserts. I almost kicked him to the curb except that he loved sushi, so it balanced out in the pros and cons list… But over time, he has surprised me with his matured tastes. He now eats and loves a myriad of vegetables (still working on tomatoes, but at least he eats them), fruits, Asian foods, and… non-chocolate desserts. Imagine my delight when he sang the praises of the lychee panna cotta with nary a drop of chocolate or caffeine in sight.

pour in the precious cream mixture

The dessert is subtle. I use the lychee syrup from the can to flavor the cream. If the syrup is too weak for your tastes, I suggest boiling it with a little sugar and reducing it to a syrup. That will concentrate the flavor. The raspberries and lychees will float to the top unless you fill their cavities with the liquid panna cotta. I think it’s fun.

my favorite way to serve panna cotta: shots

Panna cotta pairs with so many flavors and it is wonderful served any time of year. This summery version is delightful with a little rose syrup served on top (not pictured because we ate it!). The little panna cotta shots are great if you do dessert “courses”, or serve it in a juice glass if it is the main event.

a creamy way to end a meal

Lychee Panna Cotta
[print recipe]

1 cup cream
1 cup whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean
2 tsps gelatin
1 cup lychee juice (from the can)
3 tbsps sugar
lychees (canned or fresh if you can get them)
raspberries (fresh)

Bring cream, milk and vanilla bean to a boil over medium-high heat in a saucepan. Remove from heat and cover for 5 minutes. Open the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds out into the cream. Discard the vanilla pod. Sprinkle gelatin over the lychee juice or syrup* and let sit for 5 minutes. Stir the lychee mixture and sugar into the cream. Place fruit in serving glasses or bowls and pour cream over fruit. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

* If you want a more concentrated lychee flavor, you can boil the cup of lychee juice with the sugar and reduce it to a syrup. If you do this, then omit the 3 tablespoons of sugar from the cream mixture.

44 nibbles at “up all night”

  1. Laura @ HungryAndFrozen says:

    That flower is just magical looking. What a great story, and how cool that you waited so long for it to bloom. Judging by the photos, it was worth it! :) The panna cotta looks gorgeous. I’ve only ever had canned lychees since the real things in their rough, red cases are about a million dollars a kilo out here ;)

  2. Lezel Safi says:

    Wowzers! What gorgeous shots. We had a Vietnamese neighbor when we first got married 11 years ago that had some kind of similar plant…it grew outside though and it was alien-like too…reminded me of the plant on Little Shop of Horrors, I never got too close!

  3. Bridget says:

    The flower pictures are really amazing. I’m pushing for a Speedlite for my birthday, but it might be out of the appropriate price range. Bummer!

    The lychees look like raw scallops. I’ve never had them. I suppose I should give them a try.

  4. peabody says:

    Well if I am up at 9am that is super early for me. :)
    It’s pretty though I am a lychee hater thanks to my parents. Too many years of forcing me to eat them.

  5. Cynthia says:

    What a great story. You should send this to National Geographic online or something. Lychees taste too much like cantaloupe for me to enjoy. But I love the photos.

  6. Debbie Green says:

    Beautiful photos and a great story.

  7. Graeme says:

    Aah! WTF is that? It’s beautiful, no doubt, but that would scare the shit out of me if it ever touched my face.
    Dessert at your place must be on almost everyone’s “things to do…” list.

    “Lychee Panna Cotta” It even sounds sexy. And, everyone gets their own little sprig of Mint. Wee!

  8. Margie says:

    Dang girl, I wished you’d get some talent!


    lol. (I am FOREVER amazed by what you treat us to…you realize don’t you, WE ARE SPOILED…SPOILED ROTTEN! We give new meaning to the word, GREEDY)


    You never let us down. How on earth can we ever repay you? SERIOUSLY????????

  9. eula says:

    i don’t think i’ve ever had panna cotta. i’ve really got to try this recipe one day. thanks!

  10. Mollie says:

    That is so so so cool! I’m so glad you shared it with us. The pictures here an in the photo blog are amazing. Awesome girl!

  11. Jenn says:

    I love those flowers. My mom has several of those plants in her house, but they have not bloomed in YEARS for some reason.

  12. sweetbird says:

    The blooms look amazing, you really are very talented. I love the lychee panna cotta. I just tried a yoghurt and honey version and think the lychee sounds even better. Thanks for the great idea!

  13. Manggy says:

    Gasp!!! *Clutches pearls* Er, no, I don’t actually have pearls, heh heh :) Well, to be fair, I would sleep at around 1AM and wake up 9AM. Maybe I should change that– give me enough time in the morning to start working on dessert and still have enough time to shoot it. I can’t really do anything flash-wise, except with maybe a convoluted series of periscopes to direct it where it needs to go :P
    I think that flower has inspired more than one anime to include a female monster growing out of its pistil, ready to eat your young or something. It’s freaky-beautiful. I’m wondering from an evolutionary standpoint whether those are leaves with meristems at the edges or it’s really a stem which has its leaves fused to form a green wing on either side. Okay, I officially think too much…
    Would you get really mad if you had a perfectly intact lychee sitting at the bottom of my glass after I’m done? Hee hee :) I don’t think I would be able to resist a beautiful dessert with raspberries in it anyway!

  14. Holly says:

    That is an amazing and gorgeous flower! Thanks for sharing, and the dessert sounds lovely too!

  15. Rosa says:

    That flower is incredible! So alien looking, perfect and amazingly shaped! Thanks for sharing those pictures with us!

    Your Panna Cotta is marvelous! I love both fruits! A great combo…



  16. Christy says:

    Wow!! I haven’t seen that flower in ages!! One of my old neighbours back when I used to live in Singapore used to have it in her house during Chinese New Year because it supposedly brings good luck. She invited us one night to look at it bloom, but being the 9 year-old I was then I didn’t think much of it…until now. I mean, a flower that only blooms at night?!! It certainly has its mystical aspect to it…

    Love the way your lychee panna cotta looks in those photos!!

  17. Manisha says:

    If we ever meet, I’d like a leaf of that plant. Rather forward of me to say that but that bloom is soooo exotic!

    I have to satisfy myself with the pics of your panna cotta and only dream of the flavors. My hips can’t handle any more weight on them. :-(

  18. Kitt says:

    You could have titled this post, “Feed me, Seymour.” That is one gorgeous and special blossom.

    And the panna cotta looks completely delectable. I’ve been thinking I should try making some with goat’s milk.

  19. Amy says:

    That flower is amazing, and the blooming must be so much fun to look forward to. We have a few passionflower plants – they don’t bloom a lot (for us), but when they do each flower is only open for 1 day. I always get *very* excited. :)

    Panna cottas: my new favorite dessert! Great idea to do them in shot glasses (love those mini desserts.) I can’t believe I hadn’t made them before this summer. Lychee and raspberry sounds delicious.

  20. Christina says:

    Gorgeous photos!

  21. johanna says:

    wonderful pictures! god, this flower looks absolutely stunning! i used to have tons of passion flowers in the garden (that stayed open for a long time), but they never gave me any fruit – which i was very disappointed about, seeing that they’re my favourite fruit! lychee is good too – for one reason or another, lychees are “our” fruit like other couples have “their” song… please don’t ask why!

  22. Holly says:

    Seriously? That flower is un-freakin’-believable! :o) And I am such a family tradition/sentimental SAP! I loved the story. The fact that a leaf wrapped in wet paper towels in a baggie traveled so far and has been shared and the love spread ’round and ’round is really pretty awesome. That is SO cool. Not to mention beautiful. Oh, and the dessert shots look super too. I am just a sucker for a beautiful flower…and unique, at that! Your photography skills are extremely impressive!

  23. bee says:

    i love people who use stuff from cans and are honest about it. muaaah.

  24. Wandering Chopsticks says:

    It’s also called a Dutchman’s pipe cactus. My uncle’s plant bloomed around midnight a few months back and I posted about it too. My cousin called and said that flower is blooming, don’t you want to come take pictures? I was wondering what flower he was talking about and what made it so special that I had to get out of bed at midnight. Ha! It was gorgeous though, but I couldn’t detect a scent.

  25. Mrs Ergul says:

    How nice it is to have a family tradition like yours! It is a really special flower, it looks lovely too! And I know this lychee panna cotta got to surface on your blog. It’s just a matter of time! I might just give it a try! :)

  26. Steph says:

    That frontal photograph of the flower is GORGEOUS. I would buy that print for sure. We always had these around my parents’ house, and I have fond memories of my mom waking me up in the middle of the night to watch them bloom. I had no idea you could just pot the leaves and have them grow!

    Thank you for not only informing me of the name but also for posting such gorgeous photos.

  27. White On Rice Couple says:

    I must say that’s a pretty night blooming cereus and not to brag but…*cough, cough*…we have one too growing in the yard. :D
    BUT…this is a big BUT….we don’t catch it blooming too much cause it’s way in the corner of the yard and we’ve kinda forgotten about it. *slap the hand & bootie*! We’re such bad gardeners.
    Back to the names, here goes my botany banter, common names can be confusing. It f**** up people like me too, until I look in a botanical book and know the correct nomenclature. I’ll have to show you one day *wink* what I’m talking about when it comes to how confusing and general common names can be. Yup, one day you’ll see *wink*. :)

  28. Tartelette says:

    Ok…so my reading between the lines may be as bad as my maths skills but when you see Diane during your vacay please give her an extra hug for me, just because I want to be as cool as you and her :)
    The pictures of the flowers are truly worthy of National Geographic, please tell me they are buying a a$$ load of your pics!
    Both for the panna cottas and the flower: I wish your blog had a smell button. Finally I get to see those shots of pure creamy delight….love them!

  29. zoe / puku says:

    oh, lychees. having tropics withdrawals! I kick myself now for all the times I let mangoes and lychees and sapotes and pineapple go bad in the fruitbowl because we’d eaten too many, and just couldn’t face them (even to chuck in the freezer for later). I wish I could take back all that wasted fruit!

    these panna cottas are so pretty and cool looking.. and the flower is AMAZING! great photos as usual!

  30. Bridget says:

    I just tried my first lychee. I found them fresh in my grocery store. Hated them! And I’m not at all a picky eater – I can’t think of any (normal) food that I refuse to eat, but I actually spit out my second bite of lychee. Bummer.

  31. jenyu says:

    Laura – the canned and fresh lychees are totally different, but if you ever get a chance, do try the freshies! :)

    Lezel – there are several varieties of this type of plant and I am only familiar with a handful! They do look somewhat alien, don’t they?

    Bridget – thanks!

    Peabody – ha well, you are allowed to hate them since you ate so darn many!

    Cynthia – ah, I don’t think NG would be interested in my shots ;)

    Debbie – thank you :)

    Graeme – ha ha ha, it would indeed be scary to encounter in the wild, I think! You’re a hoot, Graeme.

    Margie – repay me? Lady, this is just part of the fun of show and tell and eat with friends! :)

    Eula – mmmm, panna cotta is delightful. Definitely give it a try some day.

    Mollie – really glad you like plant!

    Jenn – wow, that’s like my aunt’s plant that does bloom. I just add water and give it plenty of sun :)

    Sweetbird – you’re welcome!

    Mark – I would polish off that lychee for you, dear. Yes, that kind of crazy plant certainly has inspired weirdness – I’m sure of it. It happens to be pollinated by moths which is why it is white (no need to be bright in the UV spectrum as it doesn’t need bees). Neat, isn’t it?

    Holly – thanks!

    Rosa – thank you :)

    Christy – yes, my family believes it is good luck too. I just love that it’s so different from most of the flowers we are used to!

    Manisha – my dear, we will meet and I will bestow at least one if not more leaves on you! Oh, the panna cotta shots are little ;)

    Kitt – thanks!

    Amy – oooh, I think passionflower plants are gorgeous too.

    Christina – thank you.

    Johanna – I have a thing for passionfruit and lychee. I just love those two flavors/fruits so much! That’s awesome the lychee is “your” fruit. I like it better than a “song” :)

    Holly – thanks so much. I guess it never sunk in until recently that this plant has come from pretty far away and with a neat history behind it!

    Bee – ha ha, you are all practicality, my dear. If I could do fresh, I would!! :)

    Wandering Chopsticks – yes, the Dutchman’s pipe cactus is a different plant from the Queen of the Night. My mom’s friends have one and there is no scent. The plants look different too.

    Mrs. Ergul – ha ha, you were waiting, no? :) I hope you can get the fresh lychees where you are!

    Steph – almost that simple! You place the leaf in some water until roots form and then pot it in soil. Easy peasy!

    WoRC – now that I’ve seen your cactus, I want to remind you guys to go out and check it every other day! You have such amazing beauties in your garden/yard! :)

    Tartelette – awww, you are COOLER than I am, my dear!! How can I convince you to take a break and come out here to play? I sort of wish this entry had a smell button too – that scent was so delicate and heady!

    Zoe – I’m jealous that you guys have access to such wonderful fresh fruits!! thanks :)

    Bridget – hmmm, I guess it all depends on what your definition of “normal” food is? Too bad you don’t like lychees, but I suppose that means more for the rest of us? :)

  32. bookaholic_au says:

    The best thing about living in a subtropical area: the market fruit. Early this year (Sourthern hemisphere mid-summer) you could buy lychees at the markets in bunches. Complete with leaves and sticks. We had a lychee bouquet until we finished them.

  33. jenyu says:

    BA – yes, I can get them in season in California when I visit.

  34. Sherry says:

    Mmm…my family buys these dried to make soup out of it. Sooo yummy! This is the first time I’ve seen the actual flower before it was dried though — it’s seriously a lot prettier than I thought it would be.

  35. jenyu says:

    Sherry – I’ve heard that the flowers are edible! So cool. If I can get this baby to bloom again, perhaps I’ll save the flower after it has bloomed and try eating it. mmmmm!

  36. Jen Chen says:

    I LOVE the smell of that flower! I’m always in search for a perfume that smells like it.
    Anyhoo, the real reason I’m commenting is because you have an amazing website.. beautiful pics and super yummy recipes!!!! <3 It’s not my first time visiting your site, but you still seem to blow me away every time I visit.
    WE LOVE YU, JEN! (I bet you get that a lot, huh?) hehe

  37. jenyu says:

    Jen – awww, you’re so sweet :) thanks!

  38. Jenny says:

    This looks delish! If I choose to use fresh lychees, what do I substitute the lychee canned juice with?

  39. jenyu says:

    Jenny – that I don’t know. Someone mentioned that there is such a thing as lychee liqueur though – mmmmm!

  40. Leilani says:

    Wow! The lychee panna cotta looks absolutely delicious! I don’t have any vanilla beans — may I use vanilla extract? How many servings does your recipe make?

  41. Leilani says:

    I’ll clarify my “servings” question: I do not plan to put them in shot glasses, but in small cups. I guess what I need to know is how many ounces your recipe makes. Thanks!

  42. jenyu says:

    Leilani – probably makes 6 half-cup servings (24 oz.)

  43. Leilani says:

    Great! Thank you for the quick response! Can’t wait to make them! :-)

  44. Angie Gibb says:

    I love reading and then going back and re-reading some of your posts, as well as visiting your beautiful galleries of photos and recipes. When I got back to this one today, I had to sigh…. When I was a little girl, my grandfather took me and my cousins out late in the night, we all piled into the back of his pick-up truck and he drove us to this secret garden. We all thought how special it was that we had this time with him and that we were sneaking out into the dark with him! he told us to all be careful walking through the dark and then with his flashlight lit, he illuminated these beautiful flowers and told us they were night blooming cereus’ You could have heard a pin drop, not one of us could speak…. As soon as I was grown enough to own my own home, I knew I would have them too and today, I do. I love sharing clippings with my family and friends and it makes me smile just knowing it’s in my house, the funny thing is how I acquired my own clipping is from a Vietnamese family that was close to mine. It’s like having a piece of my grandfather with me. Thank you for capturing this moment in time that few people know about and would likely NEVER get to see. Love me some lychee’s, I can’t wait to make these panna cotta’s!

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