Why Panna Cotta Is the Perfect Dessert

published Mar 27, 2013
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(Image credit: Stacey Newgent)

The word “perfect” is a one-size-fits-all label in the blogosphere, applied to everything from our lipstick du jour or the latest chocolate cookie to blow our minds. So when I use the word perfect to describe the dessert that I think has it all, the dessert that everyone should have memorized and ready to go, I do so with some trepidation. Does perfect go too far? No, it doesn’t. Panna cotta can always be the right dessert — whether you’re throwing a fancy party or a small one, have lots of time or no time, are gluten-free, dairy-free, allergy-prone, vegan, or simply craving a delicious and creamy sweet. It’s perfect. Let me tell you why. 

I may sound like one obsessed, but I think this dessert is so winning, that I was compelled (and lucky!) to write a book about it, as well as its pudding and no-bake dessert cousins (Bakeless Sweets: Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fluff, Icebox Cake, and More No-Bake Desserts, available now for pre-order and out May 7 from Stewart, Tabori & Chang). 

There are so many reasons to love this dessert, and yet I’ve met many cooks who are intimidated by it, and this seems a shame. I love that moment of dipping a spoon into a creamy pot of panna cotta, swirling a sauce of raspberry and star anise on top, or scooping out a piece of peach from the cup. I like the chance to play with interesting dairy options, like in the Peach and Buttermilk Panna Cotta seen above.  

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

What Is Panna Cotta? 

Panna cotta is the simplest of desserts — a softly set pudding that, at its most elemental, is made with cream, sugar, and gelatin. It originated in Northern Italy, where the earliest recipes mention simmering the cream with fish bones (the collagen would set the cream). The name literally means
cooked cream

Today panna cotta is almost invariably made with gelatin, which gives it a smooth mouthfeel and a melt-in-the-mouth texture. But you can create a wide spectrum of taste and richness depending on the type of dairy used. You can create a very light, soft pudding using milk and fruit puree, or an intensely rich, thick pudding using mostly cream. 

While researching Bakeless Sweets, I spoke with my friend Domenica Marchetti, who writes wonderful books about Italian cuisine. I asked her what makes a good panna cotta. “Panna cotta, to me,” she said, “is the purest of the Italian spoon desserts. The hardest part about making panna cotta is achieving the proper consistency and texture—it should be silky smooth and just firm, with a gentle wobble.” 

The right recipe and ratio should give you that texture and wobble 100% of the time; there’s very little technique involved in getting panna cotta right. 

Why Restaurants Love Panna Cotta 

Restaurant pastry chefs carry a torch for panna cotta because the ingredients are inexpensive, it is easy (more on that in a moment!), it can show off seasonal ingredients, and it holds very well in the refrigerator. In fact, it doesn’t need to be warmed or even torched like creme brûlée; just drizzle a sauce for garnish and you’re good to go. And yet it tastes luxurious and looks beautiful. It is the dream dessert for any restaurant — which is why you see it nearly everywhere.  

Strawberry Panna Cotta from Bakeless Sweets

5 Reasons Why Panna Cotta Is the Perfect Dessert for Everyone

The reasons that make this a good restaurant dessert also make this a great dessert for home cooks. Let me count the reasons why: 

  1. Panna cotta is easy and quick.
    I made panna cotta for a friend who is a whipsmart cook, and she was startled to hear that it was homemade. “You can make this at home? I had no idea!” The smooth texture of this treat leads cooks to think it is more difficult than it is, but it is the easiest dessert in my repertoire. It needs only ingredients that are found all the time in my kitchen. 

    Our friend Tamlin came to dinner the other night, and while I was stretching out the dough for our pizza, he was rhapsodizing over panna cotta. “You like it that much?” I said. “Let’s have some!” I took a short break from pizza-making and pulled out the cream. In 4 minutes flat, I was putting the dairy away again, as well as four little dishes of panna cotta. This is not some trick of an especially good cook; it’s just how quick it is. By the time I had finished cooking the pizza and we were done eating, about an hour later, the panna cotta had set softly and was ready to eat. 

  2. Panna cotta is always gluten-free. 
    If you are looking for a dessert to expand your gluten-free dessert repertoire, then panna cotta should be on your list. As long as your dairy, gelatin, and flavorings are gluten-free, you are good to go. 

  3. Panna cotta can be low-sugar, no-sugar, or fruit sugar only. 
    Panna cotta (and most other puddings, for that matter) can easily be adjusted to be low-sugar. In baking, sugar plays a role beyond sweetening, as it adds moistness and other elements to the baked dish. So adjusting sugar or using a sugar substitute in a cake or cookie can lead to unexpected results. But you can use as little or as much sugar as you like in panna cotta with no other changes. 

    I’ve used honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, and other alternative sweeteners, and I’ve also sweetened panna cotta with nothing but fruit puree. My favorite strawberry panna cotta is made with a mix of cream and fresh strawberry puree. You need very little extra sugar, and the real fruit means amazing taste. 

  4. Panna cotta can easily be egg and dairy-free.
    OK, but what about all those folks who don’t eat dairy or have allergy restrictions? Well, for the allergy-prone, remember that panna cotta never has eggs, so you don’t need to worry about those. As for dairy, thanks to the power of gelatin, nearly any liquid can be used. I’ve made panna cotta with almond milk, coconut milk, and other non-dairy milks. (I’m currently plotting a new recipe for coconut milk panna cotta sweetened with a raspberry puree.) Some of the lightest and most delicious versions of this pudding are made with other milks; they can be totally delicious. 

  5. And yes, panna cotta can be vegan. 
    One last note: Panna cotta can be vegan. How so, you ask? Isn’t gelatin important? And we all know that gelatin isn’t vegetarian at all. Yes, gelatin is key to panna cotta, but there are some good alternatives coming on the market. My personal favorite is Unflavored Vegan Jel by Natural Desserts, which is made with a mix of vegetable gums and tapioca starch. It sets softly, melts in the mouth, and is by far the closest thing to regular unflavored gelatin that I have found. 
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

How To Make Panna Cotta

And there you have it: my sales pitch for panna cotta. Are you ready to try it? Next month I’ll bring you a photo tutorial on how to make it, but you really don’t need a how to  — it’s so easy. 

My basic formula for panna cotta goes like this: 

1 1/2 cups milk + 1/3 cup sugar + 2 1/4 teaspoons gelatin + 1 1/2 cups cream 

To make the panna cotta, sprinkle the gelatin over the milk in a small saucepan. Let sit for about 1 to 2 minutes or until it “blooms” — the gelatin grains will swell and wrinkle and look like they’ve absorbed some liquid. Stir in the sugar and warm over low heat — don’t boil! —  for about 60 seconds, or until both the sugar and gelatin dissolve. (Rub between your fingers and see if there is any grittiness left.) Whisk in the cream and any flavorings, like vanilla.  Pour into 4 to 6 small dishes. 

Dairy-Free Note: If making without dairy, then all almond/coconut/soy milk can be used, or you can increase the fat a little by supplementing with a non-dairy creamer. The pudding will set a little softer.

Refrigerate. The more shallow the dish, the faster the pudding will set. Give it an hour or two, and it will be done. 

You can serve in little dishes like this, or unmold them to be extra-fancy. Or, if you’re serving a big party, just make one big dish, top with fresh fruit, and let everyone scoop out wobbly spoonfuls into their dessert bowls. 

Separation Tip: If your chilled panna cotta sometimes separates into layers of milk and cream, know this is a common problem. Sometimes it happens because the mixture wasn’t adequately whisked, and sometimes because it was too warm. To reliably avoid it, let the mixture come to room temperature, then whisk again and pour into the cups or molds. 

Panna Cotta Recipes from The Kitchn

Related: How Cookbooks Are Made: A Peek Into a Cookbook Photo Shoot

(Images: Stacy Newgent for Bakeless Sweets; Faith Durand)