Last year I made an ardent case for panna cotta as the perfect dessert: it's easy, quick, practically foolproof, and accommodating to many dietary adjustments, being naturally gluten-free and adaptable to dairy-free and vegan diets.
Now that I've made my case for the merits of this lovely dessert, let's move on and talk about how luscious it is, how perfectly creamy, in a way that belies its utter simplicity. And let me walk you through making panna cotta, step by step.
A few weeks ago, during our editorial retreat, I made panna cotta for a dinner at home, and insisted to Ariel, our assistant editor, that it was a piece of cake to make. No, actually — easier than cake. (Har har.) She went home and tried a recipe from my book, Bakeless Sweets, and reported back, wide-eyed, that she couldn't believe how easy and quick it was.
I find that's usually the case with panna cotta; people think it's some laborious restaurant dessert involving cheesecloth and a chinois, but it's actually easier than making Jello out of a box.
But there I go again about how easy this is. Let's get back to how it tastes, shall we?
What Is Panna Cotta?
Panna cotta is a very basic pudding that is made of dairy thickened with gelatin. It originated in Italy and its name literally means "cooked cream," since the earliest versions were made of thick cream, sometimes thickened with fish bones.
You can eat it straight out of a cup, but it's often unmolded onto a plate and drizzled with sweet sauce and garnished with fruit. A bite of panna cotta is remarkably creamy, melting in the mouth without a trace of grittiness or lumps.
A Good Panna Cotta
This tutorial will teach you how to make the most basic vanilla panna cotta, flavored with vanilla extract and a pinch of salt. You only need a few ingredients (milk, cream, gelatin, flavorings). I often don't even use milk and cream but half and half (see my note on that below). The goal, with panna cotta, is to calibrate the amount of gelatin to the dairy and its fat so that you achieve a firm set that is still delicate and wobbly.
Like with any other elemental recipe, you could argue for days over the pieces. You might like your panna cotta a touch sweeter, or with less fat in it. I think that Russ Parsons laid out the basics of what can be adjusted in panna cotta very well here:
This recipe is my own idea of a very good basic panna cotta. It's not too fatty, and not too sweet, but still rich. I included a touch of extra gelatin to make it extra-foolproof, and so that you can unmold it onto a plate. But it shouldn't be rubbery — it's wobbly and velvety smooth.
What Kind of Gelatin to Use
For this recipe you should use plain, unflavored gelatin, which is usually found in the grocery store aisle with the baking supplies and Jello. I use granulated gelatin, which is the most common form of gelatin in the U.S. (as opposed to gelatin sheets).
What if you don't eat gelatin? Gelatin is an animal product and not vegetarian. You can substitute agar agar or another vegetarian gelatin substitute. I don't give precise substitutions because if you're using a vegetarian gelatin you may also be switching up the milk and cream for an alternative dairy, and I haven't tested the permutations of agar agar with soy, coconut, or almond milk, or in all the various combinations. At some point in the near future I'll bring you a completely vegan panna cotta recipe!
See more on vegetarian gelatins here, with some general guidelines:
Now, shall we make some pudding? This is a lot of conversation for what ends up being about 5 minutes at the stove — it's so easy! Oops there I go again. Let's get started!
Release the panna cotta from the cup: Run a thin knife carefully around the sides of a ramekin. Don't slide the knife all the way into the cup; just release the top edge of the pudding from the edge of the cup. Dip the ramekin in the warm water up to its rim, and hold it there for about 3 seconds.
How To Make Panna Cotta
Makes 6 4-ounce puddings
What You Need
1 1/2 cups whole milk (see Ingredient Notes)
3 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups light or heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Six 6-ounce ramekins
Lightly grease the ramekins: Spray the ramekins with cooking spray, then use a paper towel to wipe out most of the oil, leaving only a light residue.
Bloom the gelatin: Pour the milk into the saucepan and sprinkle the powdered gelatin evenly over top. Let soften for 5 minutes or until the surface of the milk is wrinkled and the gelatin grains look wet and slightly dissolved.
Dissolve the gelatin over low heat: Set the saucepan over low heat and warm the milk gently, stirring or whisking frequently. The milk should never boil or simmer; if you see steam remove the pot from the stove and let it cool down. The milk should get hot, but not so hot that you can't leave your finger in the pot for a few seconds. The gelatin will dissolve quickly as the milk warms; it melts at body temperature so this step should go quickly.
Check to make sure the gelatin is dissolved: After about 2 minutes of warming, rub a bit of the milk between your fingers to make sure it's smooth. Or dip a spoon in the milk and check the back for distinct grains of gelatin.
Dissolve the sugar: Stir the sugar into the milk and continue warming until it dissolves as well. It shouldn't take more than 5 minutes total to dissolve both the gelatin and sugar. Again, never let the mixture boil.
Whisk in the cream and flavorings: Remove the saucepan from the heat. Whisk in the cream, vanilla, and a pinch of salt.
Pour into the ramekins and chill: Divide the mixture evenly between the prepared ramekins and put in the refrigerator to chill. If serving straight from the cups, without unmolding, chill for 1 to 2 hours. If you want to unmold the panna cotta, chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Prepare to unmold: Fill a large bowl partway with warm to hot water. Wipe a dessert plate with a damp paper towel (a damp plate lets you reposition the panna cotta more easily if it doesn't fall in the right spot).
Release the panna cotta edge from the cup: Run a thin knife carefully around the sides of a ramekin. Don't slide the knife all the way into the cup; just release the top edge of the pudding from the edge of the cup. Dip the ramekin in the warm water up to its rim, and hold it there for about 3 seconds.
Unmold on a plate: Invert the ramekin over the plate and shake gently to help the panna cotta fall out, or press gently on one side to help nudge it out. It should fall out on the plate easily. (If it does not, return to the warm water bath in increments of 2 seconds.) Reposition on the plate if desired. Serve immediately, or refrigerate, lightly covered, for up to 5 days. The gelatin gets stronger as it sits, so this will be a bit rubbery by days 4 or 5, but you can mitigate this by letting the panna cotta sit at room temperature for about half an hour before serving.
Why I prefer half and half: I usually prefer to use half and half as a base for panna cotta, instead of milk and cream, because the milk and cream in half and half has been homogenized. This means that the panna cotta won't separate into layers of lighter and heavier fat levels, as often happens when using milk and cream. I don't call for it in this tutorial because half and half seems to be a predominantly American product, and we cater to readers from all over the world. But I wanted to note my preference for it.
Milk, cream, and alternative dairies: However, you can use any combination of milk, cream, coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk — really any creamy liquid — to make panna cotta. But the less fat in the panna cotta, the softer it will be. A panna cotta made with all soy milk, for instance, will set very softly. I wouldn't suggest trying to unmold it unless the proportion of gelatin was increased.
Fun with flavors: If you want to play with the flavors, try scraping a vanilla bean into the warmed milk, instead of using extract. Or add lemon or almond extracts, or stir in a handful of chopped chocolate at the very end for a straciatella effect. You can substitute espresso or pureed fruit for some of the milk. Just a few ideas — the possibilities are endless!
Troubleshooting Panna Cotta
The panna cotta is still liquid! Perhaps the gelatin didn't melt all the way, or you accidentally boiled the mixture. (Boiling destroys gelatin's thickening power.) It may also have not set long enough.
My panna cotta has two layers! See my note above about milk and cream. If you are using non-homogenized milk, as I did in this tutorial, this is especially likely to happen. I don't find that it really affects the eating experience, but to reliably avoid this, use half and half instead of milk and cream.
Serving Panna Cotta: A Few Suggestions
Panna cotta is such an easy dessert to make, and finishing it off can be very simple too. Here are a few ways I like to serve it.
Garnish with fresh fruit.
Drizzle with chocolate or caramel sauce.
Warm some raspberry or strawberry jam and drizzle over top.
Sprinkle chopped nuts or grated chocolate on top.
Dollop a spoonful of store-bought lemon curd on the pudding.