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
- 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.