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September 11, 2008

Fall and the Full Moon: Black Sesame Panna Cotta with Five Spice Peanut Brittle


I got a call from my mom reminding me that the Mid-Autumn Festival was coming up: since its date is tied to the lunar calendar, it falls on a different day on the Western calendar every year, but usually some time in late September. This year it falls on Sunday, September 14, when the moon will be at its fullest, most lucent beauty.

If you've read my previous Mid-Autumn post, or you celebrate it yourself, you know what Mid-Autumn means foodwise: mooncakes, those elaborately molded little cakes that hide a gleaming whole egg yolk inside, a tribute to the shining full moon overhead. Every bakery, and grocery, in Chinatown has tins of these delicacies piled high, ready for buying and gifting.

Perhaps because of the ubiquity of these cakes at Mid-Autumn time, I've never thought to recreate them at home. There's another, less pretty reason as well: I'm not the biggest fan of mooncakes. They are dense, rich, heavy, and the salted egg yolk has just never made it onto my list of favorite tastes. However, my very American boyfriend quite enjoys them! Go figure.

So, in lieu of trying to make mooncakes at home, I'm making a different lunar-themed dessert to celebrate the holiday. The Mid-Autumn Festival is all about appreciating the beauty of the luminescent, equinoxal moon, so what I made was a black sesame panna cotta that hopefully alludes to the speckly, variegated surface of the moon.


Black sesame is a classic Chinese flavor, especially in desserts, so it's a natural to add to a basic panna cotta, which takes flavors so well. Here, the delicate, slightly smoky taste of toasted black sesame is perfectly showcased in a unctuous, just barely set, creamy panna cotta.

You can find black sesame powder in most Asian groceries; it's often mixed with milk or water, similar to chocolate powder, so it works beautifully here in the panna cotta. You can also find black sesame paste, although I haven't used so I don't know what the results would be like: I imagine you may get a more uniformly black color, and it might be sweeter from the extra sugar in the paste. Finally, if you can't find either, you can always resort of grinding together black sesame seeds, which I did! It does work, although unless you've got an amazing food processor or are a whiz with the mortar and pestle, you will probably want to strain the panna cotta mixture after you cook it to get rid of any large bits of sesame, which would totally defeat the perfect, silken texture you're aiming for.

I also haven't figured out how to manipulate those specks of sesame so form a man-in-the-moon pattern, or the Chang'e and the Jade Rabbit: Chang'e is the Chinese goddess of the moon, and her companion is the Jade Rabbit, who can be seen pounding out the elixir of life on a stone. Nevertheless, I think the panna cotta is suitably celestial-seeming, and tasty to boot!


In Chinese desserts, sesame and peanut are a natural pairing, so to go with the panna cotta I made a five-spice peanut brittle. It's crunchy, buttery, sweet, and has just a lick of spice from the addition of Chinese five spice. This Chinese kitchen staple is a combination of five spices that is meant to hit all five basic flavors in Chinese cooking - sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory. The actual spices can vary, although the most common ones are cassia (Chinese cinnamon), fennel seed, star anise, ginger, and cloves. It gives off a distinct, earthy aroma when used in cooking, and it lends a fabulous, exotic dimension to the peanut brittle. Broken into pieces, the brittle makes a lovely complement to the panna cotta, scattered about like shining stars in the inky night sky.

Happy Mid-Autumn, and be sure to enjoy the full moon this weekend!

Oh, and since I made this for a celebration, it seems appropriate to make this my contribution to Susan's Blogiversary Bash at Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy. Happy blogiversary, dear!


The Mid-Autumn Festival is always on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. This year it falls on September 14th.

Other Recipes to Try

Sesame Balls with Chocolate Filling

Sesame Seed Cake

Wasabi Ginger Truffles with Black Sesame

P.S. You may notice that I've done some tinkering with the page layout - things have been moved about, doodads and widgets added, but nothing's been taken away, I think! Now there's a direct link to my upcoming book on Amazon and Chronicle Books, as well as to my Amazon store. Hope you enjoy the refresh!

Black Sesame Panna Cotta
makes 6 servings

2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 1/2 tablespoons black sesame powder

Fill a small bowl with about 6 teaspoons of cold water. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let it turn into a gummy paste.

Combine the cream, milk, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring just to a simmer on the stove over medium heat. Do not let it come to a boil; it should be steaming hot and just starting to bubble.

Remove from heat and stir in the gelatin, stirring until it dissolves fully.

Stir in the sesame powder. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.

Strain the mixture if necessary. Pour the mixture into individual glass dishes or ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to serve the panna cotta, dip the dishes briefly in hot water to loosen the panna cotta and invert onto a plate.

Five Spice Peanut Brittle

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

1 cup corn syrup

2 cups raw peanuts

1 tablespoon butter

2 1/2 teaspoons five spice powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

Prepare a surface to pour the brittle onto - you can cover a marble surface with cooking spray or butter, or line a sheet pan with a silicone baking mat.

Combine sugar, brown sugar, water, and corn syrup in  medium saucepan, making sure the sugars are completely covered by water.

Bring to a boil over high heat, brushing down the sides of the pan with a wet brush if necessary to prevent crystallization.

Continue cooking syrup until it reaches 238 degrees F (soft ball stage)

Add in the peanuts and continue cooking until it reaches 300 degrees F. Stir occasionally to prevent burning.

Remove pan from heat and stir in the butter, and then the five spice powder.

Stir in the baking soda - be careful as the mixture may start bubbling up. It will turn very thick and light-colored.

Pour the mixture onto the prepared surface. Use an offset spatula to spread it out thinly.

Let the mixture set, about 45 minutes, before breaking into pieces.


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The mid-Autumn festival sounds like the perfect way to celebrate nature's beauty. I love the inventiveness of this recipe as well.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival to you, Anita! Your photographs look absolutely stunning. I'm not a big fan of traditional mooncakes either. Snowy mooncakes are okay, but this year they have really wacky flavors like durian, cheese w/ truffle or fois gras, tom yum kung ... is that creative or nasty? -__-||

A very interesting recipe! A perfect mix of Eastern and Western influences! Delicious!



these desserts look so good! happy mid-autumn :)

What a wonderful dessert! I think black sesame pannacotta is genious! The mild cream will go perfect with the nutty black sesame. I can't wait to try it! And I love any sweet with 5 spice, so that peanut brittle is right up my alley as well! Yum!

happy mid autumn festival anita... what a lovely creation!

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival Anita!! I can't believe you don't like mooncake by the way...I adore them, and usually spend a small fortune each year procuring the best I can get. I agree with you though, they can be overly sweet, but hey, check out the name of my blog!!

Beautiful dessert, it really looks like the luminous white moon with specks of craters on its surface!

Oh btw, I'm still trying to get my yankee boyfriend to like mooncakes as much as I do. It's really quite the opposite with your case. But hey, just means that I'll get the whole box to myself, right?

beautiful pics, once again!

I have to admit that Asian desserts are not always my favorite. I think I'm spoiled by the butter of French and American ones, so that things like red bean paste don't always whet my appetite. I love panna cotta, though. And have enjoyed many Asian versions of it, including ones with Matcha, or Jasmine tea, or lychee. The black sesame powder is a new ingredient to me. I'll have to seek it out the next time I'm at the Asian grocery store. What are some other desserts or dishes that you would use it in?

I love desserts that are inspired by something! The photos are just great Anita! You are like a pro!

Eat this dessert must be an "intergalactic" experience... I love the tiny meteors gravitating around the moon!! :)

How ingenious! I should treat myself to some sesame panna cotta instead of the traditional sesame soup this moon festival.

Thanks the recipe!

What a nice blog, I came from tastespotting and a nice fusion dessert, very clearly used of Black sesame.

Happy festival Anita! What wonderful flavors coming together!

Black sesame panna cotta is a fabulous idea! Bravo.

This looks great, I'm always looking for new recipes to use up my little bottle of five spice.

yum!! have you seen michael laiskonis' blog yet?? he just posted about his black sesame panna cotta. we use the paste in that and it is delicious. it's not too sweet either. i love your idea of the 5 spice peanut brittle!!

Truly original take on a classic dish. Perfect!

Great post and photo.

LOVE this post: all Asian-y! That 5 spice brittle sounds so incredible. How I'd love to try it - I can't even imagine what the 5 spice flavor does for it.

I saw your link to jin-duey. Can't believe you put that recipe online! The poor souls who attempt it... I make them too and even teaching a newbie in person proved too difficult to pass on the knowledge. A very complicated recipe to master without doing it a few times (preferably with an auntie or grandmother watching over your shoulder). I think it's the "pressing against the side of the pan" part. My 'apprentice' kept breaking them and the filling would fall out into the oil. :)

Happy Moon Festival!

Now that is creative!!! The brittle really takes it over the top.

Yum, looks delicious! Black sesame is a great ingredient!

Nice take and what a great sweet it is for Mid-autumn festival!

May I just say that you have an absolutely delightful blog. Great food combined with great writing and great photography. Keep up the great work!

These recipes are really interesting and the photos are really professional .

I have never had a mooncake but your dessert looks fantastic!

I need something to celebrate autumn {it's hard for me to leave summer behind}, and this panna cotta might be just the thing! Beautiful photos!

Made the brittle this weekend to take to the neighbors' house and I barely had time to eat some...gone in 10 minutes :)

Very beautiful dessert, Anita! And I love your new layout.

What section of the Asian grocery store would stock the black sesame powder? I don't think I"ve ever come across it before - I might have been looking in the wrong place!

Thanks so much! It's one of my favorite Chinese holidays!

I can't believe how crazy the mooncakes get in Asia! I sort of feel at some point they're not really mooncakes anymore...?

Thank you! I like mixing influences in my recipes!

Thank you, and happy mid-autumn as well!

Thank you! I really liked combining sesame and peanut - I see them in so many Asian desserts!

Thank you! I'm glad you like it!

That's so funny! I'm ok with mooncakes but I guess I like other desserts better. However, like you said, there's always mooncake lovers out there!

Thanks so much!

I consider myself pretty Americanized - it took me a while to get used to many Asian fruits. I do love sesame and red bean though, and many of those hot Chinese dessert soups! As I understand, black sesame is considered to have healthful properties in Asia so I think the black sesame powder is often mixed with milk, hot water, or tea to make a drink. But I think you could find many other uses for it, like sprinkling it over dishes or using it in custards, cakes, or other recipes where you might not want to deal with the gooey nature of sesame paste.

Thanks so much! You're so sweet!

Thanks! I was trying to go for a celestial theme:)

Thank you! I love thinking up new desserts for traditional holidays!

Thanks for visiting and for the compliments!

Thanks so much! By the way, I'm thrilled you made the brittle and liked it!

Thank you! I thought the idea came out pretty well!

Thanks! Five spice is such an interesting ingredient to experiment with!

I always love it when there's synergy going between blogs!

Thanks! I had a lot of fun conceptualizing this dish!

Thank you! I try to take care getting good photos!

Thank you! I think adding five-spice to the brittle really gives it an exotic twist! As for the jin diey, well, I haven't gotten any comments from readers who made it, so maybe they were all too afraid to try! You're right though, it takes a lot of practice - I'm always amazed at so many dim sum pastries I have yet to figure out how to make, yet they churn out hundreds of them perfectly every day!

Thank you! I had a fun time coming up with this!

Thank you! I have a big jar of black sesame seeds I needed to use up!

Thank you! I enjoyed it with the mid-autumn moon!

Thank you so much for your kind words, and hope to see you again on my site!

Thanks so much! I had fun photographing and eating it!

Next mid-autumn I'll send you one! Or maybe you'd rather have the panna cotta!

Thanks so much! I hope you enjoy it!

Thanks! and I appreciate the feedback on the layout!

This looks amazing! I love black sesame and the fusion with panna cotta is inspirational!

i love panna cotta too! it's so easy to make. this is a nice twist. i hope i can find black sesame seeds here. :) thanks for sharing!

these exotic (or oriental to me) ingredients and spices certainly seize my heart, so as your elegant photos!

Fun! I love crossover flavours that add new spice to old favourites!

2 questions:

1) does the Sesame powder add any texture to the panna cotta, or is it fine enough to not interfere with mouth feel?

2) Why are your recipes in english volumetric measurements??? Weight is much better.

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