On paper, panna cotta really doesn’t seem like much. The name of this classic Italian dessert translates to mean “cooked cream,” which essentially is all it is. Cream simmered with a variety of spices and aromatics, and then set with a touch of gelatin. Think of it as Jell-O’s sophisticated older cousin, eminently satisfying despite the fact that it requires no more kitchen time than the stuff from the packets.
A quick batch of panna cotta made on Sunday evening can provide you with a week’s worth of creamy desserts, served alongside a handful of freshly washed berries or perhaps even eaten straight from the ramekin while watching television. And when planning a dinner party, this one is always a winner; Simple, best when made ahead, and always impressive on the plate (and palate).
This recipe is easy to modify, and I definitely encourage you to try. Add nutmeg and a cinnamon stick to the cream and serve with diced and quickly sautéed apples, or add a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder for to satisfy your chocolate fix. Coconut shreds, toasted nuts, cardamom pods, star anise, and various white and black teas can all be used to infuse the cream with flavor. My favorite, however, is still the original vanilla, which when made with a whole vanilla bean is strongly reminiscent of slightly melted vanilla ice cream. And for those of you following low carb eating plans, simply swap out the sugar for the equivalent Splenda, Agave, Stevia, or whatever your favorite sweetener is.
One thing to note about panna cotta is that the firmness is really determined by the amount of gelatin you use. I love a panna cotta that is creamy and just barely set, but if you'd like something a bit firmer, an extra teaspoon of gelatin will do the trick. If you make my version the day of, I suggest serving it right in the ramekin. A day or two later it will hold better when unmolded. Just dip the bottom of your ramekin or mold in a bit of warm water, run a wet knife quickly around the sides, and flip.
Classic Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta
3 cups cream (preferably not ultra-pasteurized, I love Ronnybrook cream!)
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (measure out the gelatin in the packets as amounts vary)
1 whole vanilla bean, split
1/2 cup sugar or equivalent sweetener for low-carb version
1. Pour 1 cup cream in a medium saucepan and sprinkle gelatin over it. Let sit for about five minutes or until the gelatin starts to absorb.
2. Turn the heat to low and stir until it dissolves completely. Scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the cream and add the two halves of the pod along with the rest of the cream and sugar(if you’re using Splenda or other sweetener, wait until after infusing the cream to add). Simmer over medium heat until the cream starts to foam slightly. Turn off the heat, cover, and allow to steep for 15-30 minutes.
3. Remove the vanilla bean. Add the Splenda if you are making the low-carb version.
4. Pour into 6 small ramekins (wine or martini glasses also work well for dinner parties).
5. Press a small sheet of plastic wrap over each ramekin to prevent a skin forming and place in fridge to let set (about 4 hours).
6. To serve, dip bottom of ramekin in hot water for 5-10 seconds, cover with your serving dish, then flip to invert onto the plate. Garnish with berries, cinnamon, whipped cream, or any desired toppings.