Kitchn Love Letters

Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta Is My Little Black Dress of Desserts

published Aug 16, 2022
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Credit: Sheela Prakash

It comes as no surprise, given my line of work, that my love language has always been feeding people. Specifically, it’s feeding people panna cotta. Just about anyone who has sat at my dining table has dug their spoon into a cup of the wobbly, creamy Italian custard. It’s what I made for my husband the first time I nervously cooked for him in my tiny studio apartment, how (I think) I cemented a number of friendships, and what has actually made me a more confident cook and host over the years. It’s a no-bake, five-ingredient, make-ahead wonder that’s never let me down. It won’t let you down either.

Get the recipe: Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta

A Simple Formula That Never Fails Me

There are a lot of recipes for panna cotta out there. But it’s specifically this version made with Greek yogurt that has firmly cemented itself in my life as the only one I ever need. It’s inspired by a yogurt panna cotta I discovered on Smitten Kitchen almost 10 years ago, when I was living in Italy and couldn’t find the recipe I had usually reached for. I always kept a tub of thick Fage Greek yogurt in my refrigerator for breakfast, so I was able to make it for friends who were coming for an impromptu dinner without having to run to the store. I served it in individual portions — in small juice glasses — and drizzled them generously with honey. Traditional panna cotta, which translates to “cooked cream” in Italian, is made only with cream, which is sweetened and set with gelatin to become a custard. Swapping some of the cream with Greek yogurt lends just a touch of tangy brightness, helps the panna cotta set, and, dare I say, makes it even creamier.

Since my first encounter with yogurt panna cotta, I’ve made it my own. I opt for a splash of vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste rather than lemon juice to round out the yogurt’s natural tartness and use a bit less gelatin. I also always make it in individual servings and never bother to unmold them onto plates, because to me, part of the charm in this dessert is the cozy nature of individual cups.

3 Reasons Why This Panna Cotta Is Perfection

What makes my panna cotta such a mainstay, though, is its lazy versatility that comes across as unabashedly fancy. Over the years, I discovered it’s pretty much impossible to screw this dessert up and it’s always well-received, whether for a dinner party or just a random Wednesday night when you’re craving something sweet (because it’s that easy to make). Here’s why.

  • It’s a totally make-ahead situation. In order for the panna cotta to set and become its luscious self, it needs to chill in the refrigerator for least four hours, although it can stay there for up to a few days. So you can make it in the morning, the night before, or even a couple of days before and it will be ready and waiting when dessert rolls around.
  • How you top it is totally up to you — and you have endless options. Panna cotta is truly a blank slate for toppings. Fresh fruit, jam or compote, honey or maple syrup, lemon curd, toasted nuts, shaved chocolate, and even a drizzle of good olive oil and a pinch of flaky sea salt are all wonderful choices.
  • You don’t even need to use Greek yogurt and heavy cream, if you don’t want to. While I still almost always have a tub of Greek yogurt on hand, pretty much any thick, full-fat (fat equates to creaminess, which we definitely want here) product can be used. I’ve used sour cream, mascarpone, ricotta, labneh, and crème fraîche, and guess what? They all work beautifully in place of the yogurt. I’ve also swapped the heavy cream for whole milk on occasion, because I don’t always keep the former in the fridge. While the resulting panna cotta is a touch less luxurious, it’s still dreamy because there’s enough fat provided from the yogurt. That means half-and-half and light cream are also fair game.