Panna cotta may just be the perfect dessert: Its easy, quick, practically foolproof and accommodating to many dietary adjustments, being naturally gluten-free and adaptable to dairy-free and vegan diets.
It also happens to be luscious and perfectly creamy, in a way that belies its utter simplicity. People think its some laborious restaurant dessert involving cheesecloth and a chinois, but its actually easier than making Jell-O out of a box.
But there I go again about how easy this is. Lets get back to how it tastes, shall we?
Its a very basic pudding that is made of dairy thickened with gelatin. It originated in Italy, and its name literally means cooked cream, since the earliest versions were made of thick cream, sometimes thickened with fish bones.
You can eat it straight out of a cup, but its often unmolded onto a plate and drizzled with sweet sauce and garnished with fruit. A bite of panna cotta is remarkably creamy, melting in the mouth without a trace of grittiness or lumps.
The goal with panna cotta is to calibrate the amount of gelatin to the dairy and its fat so that you achieve a firm set that is still delicate and wobbly.
This recipe is my own idea of a very good basic panna cotta. Its not too fatty and not too sweet, but still rich. I included a touch of extra gelatin to make it extra-foolproof, and so that you can unmold it onto a plate. But it shouldnt be rubbery its wobbly and velvety smooth.
What if you dont eat gelatin? You can substitute agar agar or another vegetarian gelatin substitute. I dont give precise substitutions because if youre using a vegetarian gelatin you may also be switching up the milk and cream for an alternative dairy, and I havent tested the permutations of agar agar with soy, coconut or almond milk, or in all the various combinations.
Now, shall we make some pudding?
Faith Durand is executive editor of TheKitchn.com, a website for food and home cooking.
1 1/2 cups whole milk (see notes)
3 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups light or heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
SPRAY the ramekins with cooking spray, then use a paper towel to wipe out most of the oil, leaving only a light residue.
POUR the milk into the saucepan and sprinkle the powdered gelatin evenly over top. Let soften for 5 minutes or until the surface of the milk is wrinkled and the gelatin grains look wet and slightly dissolved.
DISSOLVE the gelatin over low heat: Set the saucepan over low heat and warm the milk gently, stirring or whisking frequently. The milk should never boil or simmer; if you see steam remove the pot from the stove and let it cool down. The milk should get hot, but not so hot that you can’t leave your finger in the pot for a few seconds. The gelatin will dissolve quickly as the milk warms.
MAKE sure the gelatin is dissolved: After about 2 minutes, rub a bit of milk between your fingers to make sure it’s smooth. Or dip a spoon in the milk and make sure you don’t see grains of gelatin.
STIR the sugar into the milk and continue warming until it dissolves. It shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes total to dissolve both the gelatin and sugar. Again, never let the mixture boil.
REMOVE the saucepan from the heat. Whisk in the cream, vanilla and a pinch of salt.
DIVIDE the mixture evenly between the prepared ramekins and put in the refrigerator to chill. If serving straight from the cups, without unmolding, chill for 1 to 2 hours. If you want to unmold the panna cotta, chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
FILL a large bowl partway with warm to hot water. Wipe a dessert plate with a damp paper towel, so you can reposition the panna cotta more easily if it doesn’t fall in the right spot.
RUN a thin knife carefully around the sides of a ramekin. Don’t slide the knife all the way into the cup; just release the top edge of the pudding. Dip the ramekin in the warm water up to its rim, and hold it there for about 3 seconds.
INVERT the ramekin over the plate and shake gently. The panna cotta should fall out easily. If it doesn’t, return to the warm water bath for 2 seconds. Serve immediately, or refrigerate, lightly covered, for up to 5 days.
NOTES: Using half and half as a base will keep the panna cotta from separating into layers of lighter and heavier fat. You can use any combination of milk, cream, coconut milk, soy milk or almond milk.
Yield: 6 (4-ounce) puddings