Coffee Caramel Panna Cotta

Two of my favorite flavors come together right here, in this Coffee Caramel Panna Cotta, which offers up the rich flavor of caramel with a few strong shots of espresso. I seem to have good caramel karma and when I baked professionally, the executive pastry chef at one restaurant told me that I was the one she wanted to make the caramel desserts since I had a knack for getting caramel just right.

While I was flattered, in reality, caramel isn’t that hard to make. Like riding a bike, or when you wake up one morning and they upgrade the software on your phone for whatever reason, there’s a learning curve. (However, I still haven’t figured out how to use my photo editing software. Someone recommended a book that’s a whopping 533 pages long, but honestly, can’t they just make these things more intuitive?)

Unlike unintuitive tech, once you get the hang of making caramel, you know the pitfalls and issues that can arise, and you’ll feel like a pro when you take a taste of the finished caramel dessert and realize – whether a chef tells you so or not – that you’ve done a good job. You are a good person, and I know you can do it, too!

Here I use a dry caramel with no liquid added; it’s just sugar. The picture above may look scary, as in “What do I do wrong?” But dry caramel is pretty foolproof. I’ve given tips on making caramel here, but the basic action starts with spreading the sugar in a wide pan or deep saucepan (use a good-quality one for best results as thin pots and pans don’t heat evenly), heating it until it starts to liquify, then stirring it gently as you go, until it’s completely liquified.

Once it’s liquified, keep gently stirring it, and start watching carefully as things will now move quickly and you want to pay close attention to what’s going on in the pan. Don’t let anything distract you as a few seconds can make all the difference. Make sure the warm cream ready to go.

The caramel quickly goes from what it looks like above, to what it looks like below. When the caramel is bubbly, amber-colored (the color of an old penny), and smells just slightly smoky – as in, if you let it go a few more seconds, it’ll burn – turn off the heat and immediately add the warm cream to stop the cooking.

You want to get it to just the right color, aroma, and flavor where it’s cooked enough so it’s in the middle ground between being not sugary sweet, but not burned either. (I recently did a caramel video tutorial on Instagram that you might find interesting where I explain and demonstrate it in detail.)

Once the caramel is done, and the cream has been added, it’s hard not to want to pour the caramel below in a bowl and spoon the whole thing up. Right?

I made this Coffee Caramel Panna Cotta recipe a few times the past week, playing around with different amounts of espresso and caramel. The caramel made with 3/4 cup (150g) sugar is more caramel-forward and made the coffee flavor a little less-prominent in the finished panna cotta. So I gave you a range to choose from in the recipe.

Panna cotta is different than its custardy counterparts as it’s made with gelatin rather than eggs. There’s no water bath or constant checking in the oven to check for doneness. Although the name in Italian means “cooked cream,” the dessert has a relatively light profile since whole milk is used, rather than all cream. Here I use just enough cream to ‘stop’ the caramel (whole milk can curdle in caramel) then I add whole milk later, although lowfat will work, too. I’m not against lowfat milk. Nor am I against decaf if you want to use that.

When I had to give up coffee for a while, I turned to an instant roasted grain-based substitute, which can fill in for coffee in baking, too. Just make it as strong as espresso. Most natural food stores and well-stocked supermarkets carry different brands of them. If anyone gives you a hard time for not drinking coffee, which happened to me when I had to give it up, many espresso bars in Italy offer caffè d’orzo made with roasted barley. And anyone who wants to argue with Italians about anything coffee-related, let me tell you, it will not end in your favor.

Once you’ve mastered caramel, chocolate curls are always fun to try, which you can make by either scraping a chef’s knife down a bar of milk or dark chocolate. If using dark, use one that’s not too cold or the curls will shatter. Pastry chefs will sometimes rub a chocolate bar briskly up and down with their (clean and dry) hands to warm it up a bit before trying to make curls.

Place the block longwise at the edge of the counter you’re standing at and, holding the bar in place against you with your waist, holding the handle and the top of the blade, scrape curls toward you with the knife at a near 90º angle, angling the blade just a bit away from you as you drag it down. You don’t have to press down very hard and after few tries, you’ll find the angle and pressure that works best for you. Of course, be careful dragging the knife toward you and make sure the blade is facing away from you. You can also use a sharp swivel-bladed vegetable peeler and make shorter curls by running it down the long side of a chocolate bar. Once again, milk chocolate is softer and easier to use than dark if you want more cohesive curls. But there’s no shame in shards, either.

As mentioned, I made a few batches of this Coffee Caramel Panna Cotta before settling on the proportions here. I know some of you may have questions about using gelatin and gelatin substitutes, which I answered here. In Europe, sheet gelatin is more prevalent but sheets vary in size and in strength, ranging between five different strengths. The best approximation here would be to use two sheets of gelatin: a general rule is 3 sheets of gelatin equals one 1/4 ounce (7g) envelope gelatin. To use sheets here, soften them in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes then wring them out and add them to the warm (not boiling hot) caramel mixture after you’ve added the cream.

Coffee Caramel Panna Cotta

If you want a fuller caramel flavor, use the 3/4 cup (150g) of sugar to caramelize in step 2. The caramel flavor will be a bit more pronounced than the coffee flavor but I tried it both ways and like it, for different reasons. And you can use lowfat milk rather than whole milk, although it'll be less-smooth, but I wouldn't call this an overly rich dessert.
It goes without saying that the stronger the espresso, the more forceful the coffee flavor will be. I tried it with a few long (allongé or lungo) shots of espresso as well as espresso made in a moka pot, and both were good. If you don't have an espresso maker, use good-quality instant espresso powder dissolved in hot water. Taste and make sure it's quite strong as it'll be diluted later with the other ingredients. I've mentioned some coffee alternatives in the post.
I've not had experience using agar-agar, but fish-based gelatin is available and is said to work the same as standard gelatin. For more on gelatin, including using sheet gelatin, check my post on how to use gelatin. If you do try sheet gelatin, or another type, feel free to share how they work out in the comments.
When done, because these aren't baked, you can simply pour the finished mixture into coffee or espresso cups or other decorative glasses. The number of servings will depend on how large or small you make them. The recipe plug-in I use to write up recipes so they're printable doesn't allow me to add a range of serving sizes (which I learned when they kept disappearing after I added them...) but this recipe will make 4 to 6 servings.
Course Dessert
Servings 4 servings
  • 1 cup (250ml) whole milk, (lowfat can be used)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
  • 2/3 - 3/4 cup (130-150g) sugar, (see headnote)
  • 3/4 cup (180ml) heavy cream, warmed
  • 1/3 cup (80ml) liquid espresso
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt
  • Pour 1/2 cup (125ml) of cold milk in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin granules over it in an even layer. Set aside for at least 5 minutes to allow the gelatin to soften.
  • Spread the sugar in an even layer in a medium skillet or wide, deep saucepan. Warm the sugar over medium heat until it starts to liquify. (Generally it'll start to liquify in certain spots, depending on your pan.) When it starts to melt, gently stir the sugar with a heatproof utensil so it liquifies evenly. It will get grainy as you stir it, but as you continue to cook it, it should smooth out as it begins to take on a light amber color.
  • Continue to cook the sugar, swirling the pan more than stirring it, until the caramel starts to smoke and is a deep amber color. Smell the caramel and when it just starts to smell smoky, turn off the heat and add the warm cream gradually, stirring, until it's incorporated into the caramel. If there are any lumps, continue to stir the mixture until the lumps are melted. (You may need to rewarm the mixture over very low heat to get them all melted.)
  • When the mixture is cooled down a bit, until it's the temperature of a very warm cup of coffee, add the softened gelatin and stir until dissolved, then stir in the remaining 1/2 cup (125ml) of milk, espresso, vanilla, and salt.
  • Transfer the mixture to a large measuring cup so it's easier to pour, and divide it into custard cups or glasses. Depending on the size of servings you want, choose whatever cups or glasses you'd like to use. Chill until firm, about 6 to 8 hours, or overnight.

Notes

Serving: Serve the custards cold, on their own or with a dollop of whipped cream. They can be decorated with chocolate shavings, a sprinkle of cocoa powder, or toasted sliced almonds.
Storage: The custards will keep for up to five days in the refrigerator. 

Coffee Caramel Panna Cotta

66 comments

  • Anjali
    February 2, 2021 3:40pm

    Looks delicious! I’d love to hear if someone tries it with agar agar.

    Try saying “caramel karma” three times fast. Reply

  • February 2, 2021 3:44pm

    Love your caramel explanations …. but how in the world did you take such beautiful, timely photos in the process … was Romain called into duty? Reply

    • February 2, 2021 3:52pm
      David Lebovitz

      lol! Fortunately I have a lot of experience making caramel so I know when I can take a picture and when to keep an eye on things so I don’t burn it. But pictures really do tell the story better than words so wanted to include some photos so people could see the process so it’s not so daunting. Reply

  • SARA
    February 2, 2021 3:48pm

    Thank you for this recipe and your kind instruction. You have definitely expanded my cooking abilities and given me the courage to try. I appreciate you. Reply

  • Nicole
    February 2, 2021 3:50pm

    I was sooo looking forward to this recipe as I love both flavors. Tx vm, David. Btw – I could actually hear you speaking as I read the recipe:) Reply

  • Marbella
    February 2, 2021 4:03pm

    This sounds very decandent … and I’m going to try it soon – but I’m wondering if it could be served warm? Reply

    • February 2, 2021 4:12pm
      David Lebovitz

      It should be cooled to “set up” so not sure how it would work to rewarm it as the gelatin may liquify. If you do try it, let us know how it works out. Reply

      • Ant
        February 3, 2021 9:32am

        If you use agar agar it might reheat better (that’s why it’s more often used in the tropics). Reply

  • Jyoti
    February 2, 2021 4:15pm

    Yea raising a hand as one of those who doesn’t eat Gelatin but this looks delicious and I have had success with Panna Cotta using Agar-agar. So will try this cos this dessert is too good to pass! Reply

  • Didi
    February 2, 2021 4:46pm

    This looks like heaven!! I just watched your video about making caramel.. very very helpful. And adorable! Thanks, David. Reply

  • February 2, 2021 4:48pm

    They are beautiful.
    I am a caramel failure .I have ruined pans:( Reply

  • Felicitas
    February 2, 2021 4:52pm

    Incredible recipe! In case I am a bit lazy … can I use dulce de leche instead of the caramel? Reply

    • February 2, 2021 5:00pm
      David Lebovitz

      Probably, but I haven’t tried it. If you give it a go, let us know how it turns out! Reply

      • Felicitas
        February 2, 2021 9:57pm

        Great!! I will try and tell you about the results!! Thanks for answering Reply

      • Rodrigo
        February 3, 2021 5:22pm

        the recipe mention heavy cream but it’s not used anywhere on the text, can anyone clarify? Reply

        • Soulcraft
          February 3, 2021 7:39pm

          It is dear..point no. 3 ..add the warm heavy cream gradually to the caramel Reply

  • Lisa B
    February 2, 2021 5:10pm

    Marbella, panda cotta is not a warm dessert. For a warm dessert, try a similarly flavored pudding. Reply

  • Jean Heys
    February 2, 2021 5:22pm

    How great to have this recipe to test our caramel skill right after watching the Instagram how-to video. My panna cotta is in the fridge now and we are both looking forward to dessert tonight ;) Reply

  • Susan
    February 2, 2021 5:44pm

    Has anyone tried this with oat milk? I have a few cartons from Trader Joe’s purchased this summer and I’m searching for ways to use it up. Of course, I’ll make the caramel with cream because I’m not a complete heathen. ;-) Reply

    • amber
      February 3, 2021 1:50am

      Just use coconut cream for all? Reply

  • norman a hoffman
    February 2, 2021 5:45pm

    Can this be made in a timbale and unmolded onto the serving plate? Reply

    • February 2, 2021 7:43pm
      David Lebovitz

      I purposely tested this recipe and came up with these quantities so it was softer and creamier than a panna cotta that could be unmolded. You could up the gelatin to get it there, perhaps by using about an entire envelope of gelatin, which is about 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 teaspoons. But I haven’t tried it so can’t give an exact amount that works. If you do try it, report back as to how it worked and what quantity you used. Reply

      • Louise Louise Oppedahl
        February 3, 2021 2:53am

        Love it! Reply

    • Penelope
      February 6, 2021 8:12am

      I successfully unmoulded mine without altering the amount of gelatin. I made sure to oil the moulds, and they were very wobbly but held their shape, i.e. perfect! Reply

  • Janet L. Miller
    February 2, 2021 6:19pm

    Hi David, I’m still trying to learn whether I can add cream to your orange caramel sauce with success. Have you done this? Thank you! I love your orange caramel sauce! Reply

    • February 2, 2021 7:43pm
      David Lebovitz

      I haven’t done it so can’t say. Reply

  • Pam
    February 2, 2021 7:12pm

    The caramel sounds like how we made peanut brittle in home ec millennia ago… Reply

  • Beckster
    February 2, 2021 7:29pm

    I have a couple of jars of Trader Joes salted caramel sauce that need to be used. Can I make this using the jarred caramel instead…..e.g., add the gelatin mixture to the jarred caramel? Reply

    • February 2, 2021 7:45pm
      David Lebovitz

      I didn’t measure the quantity of caramel/cream in the recipe so I suggest probably just making the recipe as is, although you could probably fiddle around with a jar of the caramel that you bought and came up with something delicious too. Reply

      • beckster
        February 2, 2021 8:10pm

        Thanks, David, will do :) Reply

  • Joyce
    February 2, 2021 10:34pm

    Thank you David. This looks so absolutely wonderful. I’ll be making it this weekend for a “maiden” foray into caramel and panna cotta. Thank you also for the instagram on “how to make caramel.” That instagram has given me the courage to try this fantastic, and simple sounding, recipe. A question …. we are really salted caramel devotees. Is it possible to use you recipe and technique for the salted butter caramel for the panna cotta? The salt, butter, espresso, rich cream. I’m already licking my lips. Thanks David. You brighten my everyday and it has been so necessary in this last year. Reply

  • Karen Rabwin
    February 2, 2021 11:47pm

    Darn, this sounds delicious, but I’m a celiac who can’t consume caffeine! Reply

    • February 3, 2021 8:03am
      David Lebovitz

      Check out one of the roasted grain substitutes that I mentioned in the post. Several are gluten-free (such as Barley Cup and Yannoh) and they are caffeine-free, too. Reply

      • Karen Rabwin
        February 3, 2021 10:43am

        David, you have opened up a new world to me! I assumed roasted barley would be gluten, but it’s like distilled spirits, which I consume with no problem. Thank you, and now I shall make this lovely dessert. Reply

        • February 4, 2021 9:13am
          David Lebovitz

          The container I have of Barley Cup says it is gluten-free but I read somewhere that they may be dropping that certification, so check the website or label of any other roasted grain beverage you purchase to make sure it is. (Barley does contain gluten in general.) The package of Yannoh I have says it is gluten-free. Reply

        • Karen Rabwin
          February 4, 2021 11:32am

          Thank you! Reply

  • Susan Riggs
    February 3, 2021 12:10am

    These look and sound so delicious!
    Too bad I am too lazy to make them, lol.
    And don’t sell yourself short, I have had a number of people tell me that making caramel is not easy! Reply

  • February 3, 2021 4:33am

    Hi David,
    I recently subscribed and I am wondering when that subscription will start. Has it started? Is it just the newsletter or something different. BTW, I love your instas, especially the shows after you have been to the market. Thanks for all your efforts with the recipes, shows, etc. Reply

    • February 3, 2021 7:59am
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks Angela,

      When to subscribed, you should have received a confirmation email. I see you are on the subscriber list and it looks like you signed up on Feb 1st. The last newsletter went out on Feb. 1st so if you didn’t get it, check your spam folder. If you signed up after it went out, you can find it in the archives here.

      Note that in the confirmation email, all subscribers get the monthly newsletter and those who go with the paid option get a few more missives each month which may include stories and additional recipes. Reply

  • Kiran
    February 3, 2021 6:14am

    Hello David

    If I want to use a candy thermometer What temperature should the caramel reach for it to be ready Reply

    • Kiran
      February 3, 2021 7:38am

      I am happy report that 1 tsp of Hosier Hill farm Agar-Agar worked quite nicely for your recipe in place of recommended Gelatin. I believe different Agar-agar brands have different jelling strengths so use this as a guideline Reply

      • February 3, 2021 7:59am
        David Lebovitz

        Thanks for letting us know! Reply

    • February 12, 2021 11:19pm

      Que presentación David, se come nada más con mirarlo, muchas gracias por enseñar como se hace el caramelo, espero que me salga bien. Reply

  • Jeff Winett
    February 3, 2021 4:55pm

    A fun morning to wake up to yesterday, seeing your recipe and realizing I had all components for the making. We had this in bed last night while watching Seinfeld re-runs. LOVED our dessert. This last comment may sound not so important, but your instruction for softening the gelatin was so perfect (and easy) that it is the only way I will do this task from now on. Thank you for sharing. Reply

  • Lisa B
    February 4, 2021 12:29pm

    Folks, think twice before you click that ‘notify me of follow up comments’ box. These comments from readers wanting a different food, wanting information about a different recipe, and stating that they will not try this recipe, among others, are trying my patience. Reply

  • Susan Reilly
    February 4, 2021 3:24pm

    Heck! This is so good. I couldn’t resist. I drank the first serving. A few hours later, I poured half the second serving over some ice cream. It wasn’t until the third serving that I ate it “correctly.” So delicious! I used little rubbermade containers instead of tea cups because our fridge is a mess and noticed that a slightly darker layer settled on the bottom. It has a slightly different consistency. Any ideas what it was or what caused it? I followed your instructions but subbed a non-fat milk with a couple of tablespoons of cream for the whole/lowfat milk. Might that be the cause? (In these times of COVID, I use what’s on hand) Reply

  • Cat
    February 4, 2021 5:38pm

    I’ll be trying this one soon! Sounds awesome!

    I’m new to caramel work (and sugar work in general) – do you have a recommendation on a type of saucepan that works well for this purpose? Is it true that non-stick pans don’t work well for caramel? Reply

    • February 4, 2021 6:40pm
      David Lebovitz

      I recommend a good heavy-duty stainless steel skillet or saucepan. Thin of flimsy ones heat poorly and unevenly so best to use one that’s well-made. Most non-stick skillets are dark so you can’t see the color of the sugar changing so I’ve not used one. Reply

  • Deborah
    February 5, 2021 1:52am

    Hi David! I love following you…this sounds amazing and I am going to have to try it. A bit off topic, but I don’t know where to turn. I have begun making bread with French flour, but I don’t have any recipes other than US…Since T65 behaves differently, and hydration is different, can you point me to where I can get solid info about using French flours, please? I am a subscriber, so if you just want to email me back that’s cool…Thanks :) Reply

    • February 5, 2021 7:56am
      David Lebovitz

      I haven’t found a solid reference on the difference between French and other flours, but perhaps if you do some digging online, you can find one. There is one here and here that you might want to look at. Reply

      • Deborah
        February 9, 2021 3:11am

        Thanks David! I appreciate the help…I may have to move to France and start apprenticing in a bakery! Reply

        • Deborah
          February 9, 2021 3:13am

          BTW, I had found both sites…I thought I might be missing something…apparently not so much… Reply

  • February 5, 2021 5:34pm

    This is a favorite Panna cotta. Reply

  • sarahb1313
    February 6, 2021 6:30pm

    This. Was. Perfect. I made it and ended up with 5 generous ramekins. There are 3 of us home right now. I made the other 2 share the last one. I love coffee desserts, especially coffee eclairs which are rare in the US, and this gave me a hint of that without making an eggy pudding. This was so wicked fast to make and so delicious. Only problem is that after dinner that little bit of caffeine kept me up!! I would like to try a more daily friendly version with less cream and more milk, wish me luck. I assume that I need just enough cream in the caramel so the milk does not split. Reply

    • Sarahb1313
      February 7, 2021 1:39am

      I only had 150ml cream, which worked for the caramel, and since my first go was quite firm, I increased the milk by about 100ml, functionally making it just a little lighter. Ultimately it came out delicate and soft but well set. Just a tiny adjustment. I want to take a bath in it LOL YUM! Reply

      • February 7, 2021 2:30pm
        David Lebovitz

        You can definitely toggle the amount of cream and milk as long as the quantity is the same. You just need enough cream to “stop” the caramel, since milk could curdle. Reply

  • Lisa B
    February 6, 2021 8:36pm

    For those wanting to avoid cream-a family recipe for ‘blanc mange’-2 cups milk, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 pkg unflavored gelatin, 1 or more tsp vanilla. Mix gelatin with sugar then combine and heat all ingredients at moderate temperature just until ingredients are dissolved and combined. Yes this will mold. If any additional or different flavorings are liquid you will need to adjust gelatin. Nonfat milk is ok. Reply

  • Dani
    February 11, 2021 12:35pm

    I am really looking forward to trying this recipe. Just wanted to check what does “warm cream” mean? Room temperature? Thanks! Reply

    • February 11, 2021 6:13pm
      David Lebovitz

      I can’t think of any words to describe ‘warm,’ but if you imagine a cup of hot coffee that you let sit on the counter until it cools down slightly so it’s no longer very hot, that would be warm. So you can heat the cream until it’s that temperature on your stovetop or in a microwave oven. Reply

  • Judith Chick
    February 11, 2021 7:40pm

    I made this today and they are delicious. I used a very heavy copper pot for the caramel and was surprised how quickly the deep amber color appeared. Good thing I was paying attention. This is a great recipe. Thank you! I love your pod casts about what you got at the markets by the way. ❤️ Reply

  • Jennifer
    February 15, 2021 2:39am

    I was interested by the bit about your good caramel karma, and then by the fact that you stir your sugar while you’re making it. I’ve made crème caramel without a recipe for decades and have never had a problem (I also do a dry caramel and stir) but every time I watch the Great British Baking Show there are people freaking out over failed caramel and it seems to be an article of faith that you must NEVER stir your sugar as it melts. To me, this seems to be the obvious reason why it fails. Not a question, I suppose — just something I’m totally mystified by! Reply

    • February 15, 2021 10:54am
      David Lebovitz

      I have a hunch they edit tv shows to highlight “disasters” hence the freakouts over caramel issues, although – yes – even professionals do sometimes mess up. The dry caramel method really is great as you don’t have so many issues with crystallization – it’s just using the method means the process goes rather quickly, so you need to be on your toes ;) Reply

  • Jessica ainsworth
    February 19, 2021 3:46am

    I know you are getting a lot of questions these days, but thought I’d ask. I made the Coffee Caramel Panna Cotta today. It’s fabulous and I love getting a chance to make caramel and that turned out well. There were tapioca-like bits in the bottom of the cup, probably gelatin. Do you what I might have done wrong to get those? Thanks so much for your fabulous work. Been life-enhancing big time during pandemic. Reply

    • February 19, 2021 9:20am
      David Lebovitz

      Sounds like the gelatin didn’t get dissolved enough when you stirred it. You can gently rewarm the custards to dissolve those, then pour the mixture back into cups or glasses to reset. Reply

      • jessica
        February 19, 2021 11:54am

        Thank you! Reply

  • Cyndy
    March 2, 2021 5:33pm

    We thought these were delicious but I did have one problem: the cream mixture wasn’t uniform in the ramekin. As it set it formed into two layers, a thin clear coffee-colored layer on the bottom and a creamy layer on top. Both layers were nicely set, and since we ate them together, it wasn’t a big problem, but the presentation could have been better. Any thoughts on what might have made the layers separate? Reply

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