Panna cotta is incredibly easy to make, and if it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you’re doing something wrong. I’d made them before, but never realized what a fool-proof dessert it was until I saw my friend Judy Witts make them at one of her cooking classes in Florence.
Sometimes we Americans have a way of overdramatizing things, and make things harder than they actually are. But I saw Judy quickly put together this Panna Cotta at the beginning of her cooking class in no time flat, to be served a few hours later.
After we ate the fabulous meal which we’d all made together, she effortlessly unmolded them into bowls, and there was our dessert. I was pretty impressed.
That’s the beauty of Tuscan cooking: it’s straightforward and almost effortless in its simplicity. “Spend more time shopping, and less time cooking” is Judy’s mantra.
Judy bypassed the traditional route and self-published her first cookbook, Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen, which gave her the freedom to personalize each hand-written recipe. At the risk of using an over-used cliché (so I won’t ever do it again…but this time, it really is true)—it’s as if an Italian cook were in your kitchen, guiding you through the recipes.
If you want to cut the richness of Panna Cotta, you can swap out half-and-half for some, or all of the heavy cream. Because there’s no eggs or custard-making involved, you pretty much have a lot of leeway making panna cotta. I’m thinking of infusing some with lemon verbena, fresh mint, or even experimenting with white chocolate in the future. Especially with fresh cherry season right around the corner.
I served this batch of Panna Cotta with a huge pile of berries, very juicy and lightly-sweetened with a whisper of kirsch. But if it’s not the season, it’s good with a bit of honey drizzled over it, too. If you have some leftover Chianti, or another hearty red wine, you can make a deeply-flavored Red Wine Syrup and spoon it over the top. It’s amazing.
Adapted from Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witts
I love this dessert and the great thing about Panna Cotta is that it demands to be made in advance. You can make them up to two days ahead and keep them well-covered and chilled.
For gelatin-related questions, read my Tips for Using Gelatin. You can find instructions for using sheet gelatin at the end of the recipe.
- 4 cups (1l) heavy cream (or half-and-half)
- 1/2 cup (100g) sugar
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 2 packets powdered gelatin (about 4 1/2 teaspoons)
- 6 tablespoons (90ml) cold water
1. Heat the heavy cream and sugar in a saucepan or microwave. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract.
(If using a vanilla bean, scrape the seeds from the bean into the cream and add the bean pod. Cover, and let infuse for 30 minutes. Remove the bean then rewarm the mixture before continuing.)
2. Lightly oil eight custard cups with a neutral-tasting oil.
3. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a medium-sized bowl and let stand 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Pour the very warm Panna Cotta mixture over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.
5. Divide the Panna Cotta mixture into the prepared cups, then chill them until firm, which will take at least two hours but I let them stand at least four hours. (Judy told me American refrigerators are colder than European ones. )
If you’re pressed for time, pour the Panna Cotta mixture into wine goblets so you can serve them in the glasses, without unmolding.
6. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each Panna Cotta and unmold each onto a serving plate, and garnish as desired.
To make Panna Cotta with sheet gelatin: Soften 25g (approximately six sheets) in a liter of cold water for 5 to 10 minutes. Wring the sheets out and stir them into the warm Panna Cotta mixture in step # 4, until dissolved.