With all the classical music I’ve heard over the past two weeks, I decided to write about variations on a theme. A foodie theme, that is. My hands-down favorite Italian dessert is panna cotta. Most people turn to tiramisu, cannolis or grilled peaches with amaretti and vanilla ice cream, but I prefer this humble, yet so satisfying gelled cream.
Yep, like the blanc mange of the Middle Ages, it’s a cold molded dessert made with a proportion of milk and cream, and flavoring, but uses gelatin instead of starch as a thickener. It’s the texture that I find irresistible– cold, creamy and smooth. When it’s made correctly, it quivers on its dessert plate, but never collapses! I order it whenever it’s on the menu; sometimes I’m elated, other times deflated. So I’ve learned to make it at home.
Having tried several recipes, I’ve never found the perfect one until I tried the one in Nigella’s new cookbook, Nigellissima. She’s one of my favorite TV cooks because 1) she clearly loves to eat what she makes and 2) she’s also a somewhat lazy cook. In her book, she gives a trio of recipes; first the vanilla and then two more.
I’m making the vanilla one today since it’s the classic preparation. The only change I made in the ingredient list (come on, now– you know I rarely stick to the original recipe); I swapped the whole milk for buttermilk because both Kurt and I like the bit of tang in our custard! I also forgot to throw the vanilla bean in with the cream, so try to remember that. I didn’t notice any reduced vanilla flavor, tho’.
Nigella recommends metal baba molds for the panna cottas, but I use 1/2 cup ceramic ramekins. (I also use them for instead of brioche tins). Usually, I am successful with the unmolding step if I run an icing spatula or thin knife around the panna cotta to release it from the ramekin then hold the ramekin briefly in a bowl of hot water for about 30 seconds.
Panna cotta is a good party dessert because you can make it ahead of time and unmold just before serving. I don’t bother with any sauce, but I’ve had it with all kinds of fruit sauces/coulis– raspberry, strawberry, passion fruit. Meh, I’m a purist at heart when it comes to my panna cotta!
Vanilla Panna Cotta (from Nigellissima)
- 2 TB cold water
- 1 tsp gelatin (e.g., Knox)
- 1 2/3 c heavy whipping cream
- 1/3 c buttermilk
- 1/4 c sugar
- seeds and pod from 1 vanilla bean
Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let sit for 10 minutes to soften gelatin.
Measure the cream, buttermilk and sugar into a 2 cup measuring cup and whisk to dissolve sugar.
Trim the ends off the vanilla bean and slit open the bean lengthwise, taking care not to cut the bean all the way through. Using the tip of the knife, open up one end and scrape the vanilla bean seeds from the pod. Set aside.
Pour the cream mixture into a sauce pan and add the scraped vanilla seeds (and pod, if you remember). Set the pan over medium-low heat. Hold onto the measuring cup for later. Heat milk to a scald, e.g., bubbles just forming around the edge of the pan. Remove pan from the heat.
Check the gelatin to ensure it’s soft (it will be gooey). Scrape the gelatin into the warm milk and whisk to dissolve. Pour the mixture into the 2 c measuring cup you initially used and then fill 4 1/2-cup ramekins. Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate to set, from one to four hours.
Unmold by running a thin knife or spatula around the edge of the ramekins to release the panna cotta, then dip in a bowl of hot water for about 30 seconds.
Turn ramekin onto a dessert plate.
Serve as is or with fresh berries, sauce, etc.