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For Tyler May, baking is magical. “When I was young I was into sleight of hand and card tricks that require intricate motor skills, very refined hand-eye coordination, and a lot of imagination. The crossover into cooking has been invaluable,” says May, executive chef at Stone Row — recently rebranded from Cafemantic as part of its 10th anniversary — in Willimantic. (The name Stone Row is an homage to the Willimantic neighborhood’s industrial past and the restaurant’s location along the Willimantic River. Changes include a redesigned dining room, a new bar, expanded outdoor dining, and a new patio level to allow for increased socially distanced dining.)

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Tyler May

Panna cotta with sesame and coconut crumble is one of his crowd-pleasing feats. “Being made with gelatin is kind of magic on its own. Think of the resurgence of Jell-O in the 1950s. It was sort of this wonder ingredient for the emerging culture of home cooks. We’re using that idea, albeit in a more elevated way.”

May describes panna cotta — “cooked cream” in Italian — as a “mother dessert” because it works with other flavors. “It gives you the base to have fun with whatever else you have available, such as fruits, liqueurs, caramel, chocolate, coconut and sesame,” says May, noting the dish is decadent and satisfying, yet light. “We need to eat reflective of the summertime attitude — spontaneous, active, carefree. It’s a great dessert for entertaining because it can be made ahead of time.”

To create Stone Row’s menu, May follows the New England seasons, complemented by national and international ingredients. “Our concept is centered around cooking food that celebrates the hard work of the farmers, foragers and fishers that supply our kitchen,” says May, adding that he uses ingredients on hand. “Coconut, heavy cream, and sesame seeds are good staples of any pantry that mixes local, regional and international flavors into our repertoire.”

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Panna cotta with sesame and coconut crumble

Servings: 6 • Prep time: 20 minutes and 4 hours to set custard

Chef’s tip: To avoid animal products, substitute the gelatin with agar (derived from red seaweed), honey with a sweetener such as agave nectar, brown rice syrup, or maple syrup, and use a non-dairy cream such as coconut or soy.

Custard

Ingredients:

  • 4 gelatin sheets
  • 1½ cups heavy cream
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 1 (13½-ounce) can coconut milk

Bloom the gelatin by soaking the sheets in a bowl of cold or iced water for 5-10 minutes (use about 1 cup of cold water per sheet). While soaking, make the custard.

In a saucepan, over medium-high heat, stir together the cream, sugar, salt and coconut milk. Dissolve sugar and salt, watching carefully, as the cream will quickly rise to the top of the pan. Remove the custard from heat.

Once the gelatin is soft, lift sheets from the cold water and wring the gelatin gently and squeeze to remove excess water and add gelatin to the custard mix, stirring until gelatin is dissolved. Strain mixture with a chinois or sieve into a bowl.

Pour or ladle desired amount into your preferred dishes (May uses 6-ounce, wide-mouth mason jars).

Chill for 4 hours or until set. Be patient and give the custard time to set.

Sesame and coconut clusters

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups sweetened coconut, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons black sesame seeds (white can be used, but black is better for presentation)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons sugar

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Mix all ingredients in a bowl, then transfer to a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes, rotating halfway through. Cool completely for about 20 minutes before storing or removing from the pan. Note: Clusters will stick together and form a single cluster if moved/mixed while warm.

When custard is set, top with the clusters.

Pamela Brown is a former English professor, a freelance writer, a marketing/PR specialist for the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, and author of Faithful Love, her first novel that inspired a love of writing. Pamela resides in Connecticut with her daughter, Alexis, who makes her life an adventure. 

This article appears in the August 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.