Panna Cotta

Italy’s answer to pudding, panna cotta means cooked cream.  Unlike a true custard that is thickened with eggs, panna cotta gets its “set” from gelatin.  At its simplest, it is sweetened cream stabilized with gelatin, but you can jazz it up with zests or spices.

Panna Cotta
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This method seems a little fussy, but it will yield a very creamy, rather than slick, panna cotta. The mixture will also be thick enough that any vanilla bean specks will be suspended and won't sink to the bottom. When served, you can always tell if the panna cotta mixture was too warm or too thin when molded because there will be tons of little black specks on the top, which used to be the bottom. Not pretty. This won't hurt the flavor, but if you're going to make a simple dessert, and panna cotta is, than you might as well make it as perfect as possible.
What You Need
  • 4-5 teaspoons powdered gelatin (less for a softer set, more for a firmer set)
  • 3 cups whole milk, divided
  • pinch of salt, to taste
  • 2½ cups heavy cream (you can substitute some plain tangy yogurt, buttermilk, creme fraiche or sour cream for some of the cream--try subbing half the amount)
  • ½ cup sugar, more or less to taste
  • 1 vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
What To Do
  1. Bloom the gelatin in about ½ cup of milk. When softened (about 10-15 minutes), add to another cup of milk, half of the sugar and the salt (and anything you're steeping in the milk) to a saucepan.
  2. Heat until very hot to dissolve sugar and gelatin, but do not bring to a boil. (Boiling gelatin reduces its thickening power).
  3. Strain into the other 1½ cups of cold milk. If you are substituting for a portion of the cream, add the substitution here and whisk in very well.
  4. In a stainless steel bowl, whip heavy cream and the other half of the sugar until thickened and whisk leaves tracks in the cream. You don't even have to get it to soft peaks, but do make sure it has thickened some.
  5. Whisk everything together thoroughly and strain again. At this point your mixture should be pretty thick, which is what we're going for. If your mixture still seems a little thin to you, whisk it over an ice bath until it thickens enough to suspend the vanilla specks.
  6. What to mold it in? Well, you can serve them in ramekins, but it's a little nicer to unmold them. The easiest thing to use, if you have them, are flexible silicone muffin pans.
  7. Pour the panna cotta in, freeze them, pop them out onto your serving plate, and let them come up to serving temperature. This will take about 30 minutes or so. The cheapest thing to do is to mold them in mini solo cups, freeze them, cut and peel the cups away when frozen, then plate and let come up to temperature. The downside of this method is that your lovely panna cottas will say Solo in bas relief on the tops! Fix this by serving fresh or stewed, sweetened berries on top.
  8. If you prefer not to freeze your panna cottas, you can serve them in ramekins. It is difficult to unmold a jiggly, creamy dessert.
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