So today brings my first dessert recipe to mezze & tapas – Panna Cotta. I chose panna cotta because it is one of those deceptive dishes. It looks elegant and like it takes alot of time and fussy preparation, but the exact opposite is true. It does look elegant but it is SUPER easy to make, requires zero fussy preparation, and is nearly impossible to mess up. Beyond that, you can top it with just about anything for that ‘fancy’ presentation. And once you master the basics, there are endless variations to mix it up a bit.
I love creme brulee. It is one of my favorite desserts ever. So is crema catalana, a similar traditional Spanish version. Some say that the French ‘stole’ crema catalana and made their own. That history is the subject of another blog post, as is how to make them. Both the history and the method are somewhat complex. There is the separating of eggs, careful heating to be sure not to scramble the eggs. Then there is the caramelized crust that goes on top. That requires mastery of either your oven’s broiler or a blowtorch. We WILL get to that here, but not today.
As I said, I started with panna cotta because it is really simple to make. It takes few specialized skills or ingredients. It takes about 20 minutes to prepare, and your only real investment is in patience. Patience while it sits in the ice box for six to eight hours to set.
Patience Pays Off
But of course, you can use that waiting time to your advantage. Having friends over for dinner tomorrow? Spend 20 minutes today and your fancy dessert is done. Want something a bit different than ‘instant’ pudding for the kids dessert tonight? In about the time it takes to make and chill instant pudding, you can make panna cotta. Panna cotta is your friend. Easy to make and ready when you need it to be.
When we were in Italy last September, panna cotta was a favorite dessert of ours. If we weren’t saving room for a gelato on our passeggiata, then we had panna cotta for dessert. Just about every restaurant has a version, and some were better than others. Sometimes it was topped with fresh fruit. Sometimes with a chocolate sauce. And once dressed only with some mint leaves. Mostly it was served unmolded – that is on a plate turned out from a mold. Occasionally it was served in a small glass or cup. No two places did it the same.
Once you learn the basics of making panna cotta, there is a world of possibilities out there. Take two minutes on Pinterest and search panna cotta, and you will be amazed. This morning I tried it and on the first page alone there were twenty-two versions of panna cotta. Coffee, mango, lemon, raspberry, coconut, balsamic marinated peach, and yogurt. Also passionfruit, rose, strawberry, chocolate, hazelnut and irish cream. Still more — whiskey, rhubarb, earl grey, masala chai, blueberry, nutella, and dark chocolate espresso. Plus a honey, rose and cinnamon version. And of course the basic panna cotta.
Your Blank Canvas Awaits
The point is, once you have the basics down, you can exercise your creative muscles. Try out any of the many possibilities out there. Or invent your own. The basic panna cotta is a blank canvas waiting to be painted!
The trickiest part, which is hardly tricky at all, is getting the gelatin ratio right. Properly done, panna cotta has a bit of a ‘jiggle’ to it when set. Push it with your finger, and it will move a little, and then ‘jiggle’ for a few seconds until it settles down.
Too much gelatin, and you won’t get that ‘jiggle’. You will end up with a firm block of semi solid cream that feels more like a cream cheese. It will still taste great, but it will be more like a milk cube than panna cotta. Trust me, I’ve made this mistake before.
Too little gelatin, and it won’t set at all. You will end up with slightly thickened cream that will pool on your plate and not hold any form at all. I’ve made this mistake before too!
So what is the right amount. I have found in my experimentation that it is best to use somewhere between ¾ tsp to 1 tsp of gelatin per cup of cream. If you are using the powdered gelatin available in the US, that is less than a full pouch. If you are using the sheet gelatin favored in Europe, that is about 1 sheet of gelatin per 250 ml.
No matter how much gelatin you use, the longer it sets, the more firm it will become. Make your panna cotta today for tomorrow and you will be fine. Let your panna cotta sit in the refrigerator for four or five days and you will end up with a rubbery cream mix.
Prep the Gelatin
Either the powdered or sheet gelatin need a bit of prep before you add them to the cream. For powdered gelatin, put it in a small amount of cold milk and stir it to soften. Once softened, you can dissolve it. To do that, warm the cold milk almost to the point of boiling, and stir the mixture occasionally. This is what you will add to the larger pot of cream to make panna cotta.
Sheet gelatin needs to first be soaked in cold water, then squeezed and added to cold milk. Then warm the cold milk almost to the point of boiling, and stir the mixture occasionally.
Either way, you will add the gelatin mixture to the cream. To prepare the cream, put it in a pot over medium low heat and begin to warm. As it warms, stir in the granulated sugar and vanilla extract. Keep stirring to keep the cream from ‘scalding’ and burning to the bottom of your pan. You definitely don’t want that!
Just as the cream begins to boil, take it off the heat and add the dissolved gelatin mixture. Whisk to thoroughly combine the two.
Here, I poured the mixture into a large measuring cup. I did this because it is easier to get the panna cotta mixture into small cups and molds that way. The spout of the measuring cup gives me more control over pouring. The handle is easier to control than that of a large hot pan. All in all an easier solution.
Pour the panna cotta mixture into your cups or molds and put them in the refrigerator to set up. It will take six to eight hours to set properly.
Molds vs Cups
When I made the batch of panna cotta for taking pictures for this blog, I made it two different ways. I made several small cups and two small molds. I did that to show examples of different ways to present it.
For the molds, I sprayed them with a quick spritz of cooking spray before adding the panna cotta mixture. This was to help with the release of the panna cotta when I unmolded them. It definitely helps. I had a simple flat surfaced mold and it makes a difference. It is essential if you have a more complex mold shape with lots of detail.
When you are ready to unmold your panna cotta, prepare a small bowl of warm, not hot, water. Dip the bottom of each mold in the water to help loosen the panna cotta. Then run a small knife around the edge to break the ‘seal’ at the top rim of the panna cotta. Put your serving plate upside down on top of the mold, and then flip the whole thing over. A gentle shake or two and the panna cotta should come out of the mold and onto the plate. If it doesn’t work the first time, repeat the process until it is done.
For putting the panna cotta in cups, I thought I would be fancy. I put a strawberry in the bottom to be a ‘surprise’ when you finished the panna cotta. It didn’t work as I planned. The strawberry floated to the top and settled just below the surface. It still tasted great, but it didn’t achieve the look I was going for.
Presentation Ups the Elegance Factor
I said at the top of the post that panna cotta makes an elegant dessert. Just a bit of flair in the presentation is really all you need. For the molded panna cotta, I just added a fresh strawberry from a local farm and some mint leaves from our herbs. I also show a version in a raspberry coulis. You could easily drizzle it with chocolate sauce or add a fruit sauce instead. For the panna cotta in cups, I topped with crushed pistachios and fresh strawberry. Add your own touch to make it your version of elegant! This is your chance to be an artist!
Panna cotta is one of those desserts that you really need to try. It is sweet and creamy and delicious. It is really easy to make and hard to mess up. You can pick up a new skill (working with gelatin) and have fun decorating your finished dessert. All in all, it is a classic Italian dessert that will brighten your day.
Panna Cotta Easy Elegant and Delicious
- 2 cups heavy cream (500 ml) Whipping Cream is OK too
- ½ cup superfine sugar (100g) Use granulated if you don't have superfine
- ¼ cup milk (60 ml) fat free, 1%, 2%, or whole all will work
- 1½ tsp powdered gelatin (1 1/2 leaves of sheet gelatin)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (5 ml)
- Prepare six small cups or molds for the panna cotta. If you are using molds, quickly spray them with cooking spray to help the mold release easier later.
- Place the milk in a small heat proof bowl
- Pour the gelatin over the surface of the bowl and stir to combine
- Gently heat the milk/gelatin mix until almost boiling to fully dissolve the gelatin
- Remove from heat and set aside
- Place a small sauce pan over low heat on the stove and add the heavy cream
- Heat the heavy cream while gently stirring constantly until small bubble appear on the surface
- Add the superfine sugar and vanilla extract and continue to stir and heat until the cream mixture just starts to boil
- Remove from the heat and whisk in the gelatin mixture. Whisk to fully incorporate gelatin into the cream
- Pour the cream through a fine strainer into a large measuring cup
- Pour the hot cream into the prepared molds/cups
- Put in the refrigerator and allow to set for at least 6 – 8 hours
- When ready to serve, top with your choice of toppings