Panna Cotta is a chilled, softly gelled, silky smooth, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth Italian dessert that translates as “cooked cream.” I mentally put it in the pudding and flan category because of its creamy, set quality, but unlike most flans and puddings, it usually contains no eggs (for an interesting exception to this see The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelles by Kate Zuckerman). In consistency, it is somewhere between a flan and lightest possible gelatin. When set, it can be unmolded, in which case it will shimmy seductively on the plate. It’s a little bit of heavenly cool on a spoon.
Typically, Panna Cotta is made by melting softened gelatin in hot liquid, combining with a sweetened dairy product, pouring into molds, and finally chilling to set the gelatin.
Dana of TastingMenu offers a deep look at the chemistry behind this dish in her blog post titled, Perfecting Panna Cotta, which I found most interesting. I appreciate cooks who work to understand the underlying science and then use that knowledge to create dishes that are both unique and inspired. I agree with Dana that there is no reason to actually “cook” the cream and it may change the texture of the finished dish slightly. You only need to heat enough liquid to melt the gelatin: ½ to 1 cup of very hot liquid to 1 packet of softened powdered gelatin.
I am also intrigued by her admonition to cool the melted gelatin at room temperature for 1 hour before finishing and refrigerating the panna cotta. Dana says that this process helps to form a tighter, stronger web of protein chains, which enables you to use slightly less gelatin and achieve a soft set that does not become firmer as the days pass in the refrigerator. However, if you don’t have an hour to wait, you must at least cool the hot gelatin gradually by adding the cold liquid to it a tablespoon at a time until the gelatin feels cool to the touch. If you rush this step, the mixture will likely be lumpy.
For plating inspiration, go to Google Search at http://www.google.com/, select Images, type “panna cotta” in the Search box, and then click Search Images. Or, go to TasteSpotting at http://www.tastespotting.com/, type “panna cotta” in the Search box, and press Enter. You will see a delectable array of flavoring, plating, and saucing options.
Typically, a ½-cup of panna cotta is one serving. It is rich, so a little goes a long way. Thus, look for curved bottom molds that hold 5-6 ounces, or glassware, ceramic ramekins, or custard cups that hold about that same amount. If you plan to unmold the panna cotta, it helps if the mold is metal (so that you can quickly get the mold hot by dipping in boiling water, which makes for a clean release of the contents) or a pliable container, such as a plastic storage container.
To develop my master recipe for panna cotta, I created a recipe grid that compares key ingredients across examples from 20+ respected cooks. The most interesting of these examples are listed under “Inspiration” at the end of this post. As you might imagine, the key proportion of gelatin to total amount of liquid is all over the place in these examples.
Some examples I encountered use so much gelatin that I suspect the author didn’t actually test the recipe or taste the results. You should not be overtly aware that there is gelatin in this dessert when you are eating it. That aspect should be quite subtle. For my master recipe, I am using enough gelatin to enable unmolding of the panna cotta. If you do not plan to unmold, you can use a little less.
As it may be difficult for some folks to acquire gelatin sheets (which are cool because they are rated for gel strength), I am working here with standard Knox powdered gelatin. If you do happen to have sheet gelatin, you will have to determine the substitution based on the strength of the particular type you have. For an in-depth discussion and substitution formula see eG Forums.
Tips & Tricks
- 1 packet of Knox powdered gelatin = ¼ ounce = 2½ teaspoons.
- Do not use gelatin with bromelin-heavy fruits, such as fresh or frozen pineapple, guava, figs, kiwi, or gingerroot. The Bromelin enzyme destroys the protein bonds in the gelatin, thus preventing gelling. (Cooking or canning pineapple destroys the bromelin.)
- If you want to add warm, melted gelatin to a cold liquid, you must gradually cool the gelatin by incorporating the cold liquid a tablespoon at a time until the gelatin is cool. Then you can add it to the remainder of the cold liquid. If you stir melted gelatin into a cold liquid, the mixture will be lumpy.
- To achieve a silky, light texture with this master recipe, very thick dairy products, such as cream cheese or fresh goat cheese, must be thinned to about the consistency of sour cream or perhaps Greek yogurt. If the mixture is too thick, the Panna Cotta will be heavier than usual for this recipe.
Panna Cotta Master Recipe
To my palate, this is the perfect Panna Cotta. It is lightly set and lightly sweetened with a good balance between fat and lean dairy ingredients. If you choose buttermilk or yogurt for the Additional Diary Option, you will have 2 cups of lower fat dairy to 1 cup of cream. You can take this dessert even leaner if you like, but because the portions are small, I seldom go that route.
My favorite way to eat Panna Cotta is with one or two Dessert Syrups alongside and a heap of fresh berries, nectarines, or peaches. In addition, Panna Cotta begs for a sweet and crunchy accompaniment, such as nut brittle or a thin, crisp tuile, sable or shortbread cookie.
1 packet powdered gelatin
¼ cup plus ¾ cup milk
1 cup cream
½ cup sugar (or honey)
Additional Dairy Options
1 cup cream, coconut milk, goat milk, buttermilk, yogurt, sour cream, cream fraîche, crèma, mascarpone, or any combination thereof. (Up to ½ cup can be citrus juice, espresso, or other liquid.)
¾ cup (6 ounces) cream cheese, fresh goat cheese, or combination thereof, beaten until smooth with ¼ cup milk (should be about the consistency of sour cream or Greek yogurt)
A few options are dried lavender, dried rose petals, fresh basil, fresh rosemary, fresh tarragon, crushed lemongrass, rose water, orange blossom water, vanilla, matcha, orange zest, or lemon zest. Amounts will vary according to the flavor strength of the ingredient and your intended effect.
- Soften the gelatin: In a small, wide bowl, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over ¼ cup cold milk and let stand about 5 minutes, until softened. (This is called “blooming” the gelatin.) Reserve the remaining ¾ cup milk.
- Dissolve the sugar and add infusions: In a small saucepan, bring ½ cup cream to a simmer with the sugar and cook until the sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. If desired, add desired infusions and infuse for at least 30 minutes. Strain into a clean saucepan.
- Dissolve the gelatin: Reheat the strained sugar-cream mixture to hot, but not above 130º, and stir in the softened gelatin until completely dissolved. (To ensure that the gelatin is dissolved, dip a spoon into it, lift out, and look closely for tiny undissolved particles. Keep stirring until all gelatin particles are dissolved.) Let rest at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Combine base ingredients: In a medium bowl, whisk 1 cup of your Additional Diary Option with the remaining ¾ cup milk and ½ cup cream until smooth. You will have 2 cups of base mixture.
- Add the melted gelatin: Whisk the cooled gelatin-milk mixture into the base mixture. You now will have 2¾ cups of base mixture.
- Strain: Pour the panna cotta mixture through a triple-mesh, sieve into a large glass measuring cup with a pour spout. Then pour into six 4-6 ounce ramekins, dessert glasses, or molds. (There is no need to oil the molds.)
- Set the gelatin: Arrange the panna cottas on an edged baking tray and put into the frig. Lay a sheet of foil over the top. Refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours.
- Serve: To serve, unmold onto dessert plates or present in ramekins or dessert glasses. To unmold, briefly dip the bottom of each mold in a bowl of hot tap water. If necessary (and it never is actually), run a thin knife around the edge of each mold to loosen the panna cotta from the inside of the mold. Wipe the outside of the mold dry and place on individual chilled dessert plate (topside down). Invert the panna cotta onto the dessert plate and carefully lift off the mold (shake gently if necessary).
- Serve with macerated fresh fruit, fruit sauce, Strawberry Lime Salsa, Fresh Blueberry Lime Sauce, Rhubarb Cinnamon-Hot Sauce, or garnish of choice.
Makes six ½-cup servings.
Light as a Feather Panna Cotta
- At Step 4, do not add your Additional Dairy Option, which in this case will be cream.
- Whip 1 cup heavy cream. Reserve.
- At Step 6, pour the Panna Cotta mixture through a triple-mesh sieve into a medium mixing bowl. Set the bowl over a larger bowl filled with ice and water. Whisk slowly until the mixture begins to thicken (set).
- Quickly fold in the whipped cream. Spoon the mixture into serving dishes or glasses. (Don’t attempt to unmold this very light Panna Cotta.)
- Proceed to s Step 7.
Panna Cotta Verrine
- To turn any Panna Cotta into the layered-in-a-glass, French dessert known as a Verrine, simply pour a portion of the completed mixture into six individual clear glass serving glasses; frig until somewhat firm; top with gelée, jelly, fresh or cooked fruit compote; add another layer of the Panna Cotta mixture, frig again until somewhat firm; and so forth until the glass is full. You can also layer different flavored Panna Cottas.
Rose Petal and Honey Yogurt Panna Cotta
- At Step 2, substitute honey for sugar.
- At Step 3, add 1 tablespoon dried rose petals.
- At Step 4, use yogurt for the Additional Dairy Option.
Lavender Chevre Panna Cotta
- At Step 3, add 1 tablespoon dried lavender.
- At Step 4, use fresh goat cheese for the Additional Dairy Option.
Candied Ginger Buttermilk Panna Cotta
- At Step 3, add 1 tablespoon minced candied ginger.
- At Step 4, use buttermilk for the Additional Dairy Option.
Rosemary Lemon Sour Cream Panna Cotta
- At Step 3, add 2 sprigs fresh rosemary and finely grated zest of one large lemon.
- At Step 4, use sour cream or crème fraiche for the Additional Dairy Option.
- a la cuisine!: Coconut Panna Cotta & Pineapple Gelée Terrine
- Aesthetic Appetite: Rosemary Panna Cotta
- Chez Pim: Pumpkin and Coconut Milk Panna Cotta
- Cooking Debauchery: Cardamom Panna Cotta
- Curiously Ravenous: Pandan Panna Cotta
- David Lebovitz: Perfect Panna Cotta Recipe
- epicurious: Green Tea Panna Cotta with Strawberries
- Gourmantine’s Blog: Double Chocolate Panna Cotta
- Making Life Delicious: Chocolate Panna Cotta with Raspberry Gelée & Orange Florentines
- Moveable Feasts: Rosewater Panna Cotta with Rhubarb Verrine
- Italian Food Forever: Chocolate Panna Cotta with Espresso Cream
- My Kitchen Snippets: Panna Cotta with Raspberry Sauce
- Panna Cotta: How to Make Panna Cotta
- Serious Eats: Luscious, Light Panna Cottas
- Tasting Menu: Perfecting Panna Cotta
- There’s a Newf in My Soup: Meyer Lemon & Basil Crème Fraiche Panna Cotta with Blackberry Puree
- Use Real Butter: Espresso Panna Cotta
Copyright 2011 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.