In 2002 the government of the northern Italian region of Piedmont declared panna cotta to be a traditional Piedmontese dessert, but you don't have to travel to Italy to spoon into a perfect bowl of the jiggly, delicate dessert. You can make a perfect panna cotta in your own kitchen, and with just three basic ingredients -- gelatin, cream and sugar. If you can stir it, you can make it. You see, despite its delicate consistency and presentation, panna cotta is really just a pudding -- translated, its name means "cooked cream" -- and it's fairly customizable; adjust the sugar to your taste, add your favorite extracts or other flavorings, and don't be shy experimenting with the kind of milk (or cream) for a richer or dairy-free dessert.
Choose unflavored gelatin for your panna cotta -- the most common in the U.S. is granulated, but gelatin's also sold in sheets -- and make sure you "bloom" it before adding it to your cream mixture. Blooming gelatin basically means you're dissolving it, and allowing it to absorb liquid. The blooming process is pretty easy -- just sprinkle the gelatin over cool water or milk. Keeping the temperature cooler than 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius) will keep gelatin from blooming too quickly, and in doing so you'll avoid lumps in your final product. After sprinkling, give it a gentle stir to make sure you have even distribution, and let it sit for a few minutes (usually about 5 minutes will do the trick).
In addition to blooming, straining the final mixture just before you pour it into molds to set will give your panna cotta the smoothest texture.
Gelatin-based desserts are best eaten soon after they're cooked, and panna cotta will begin to develop a rubbery texture if it ages beyond four days.
Panna cotta is perfectly paired with fruit, but not all fruit is good for panna cotta -- the problem relates specifically to the gelatin. Enter bromelain.
Bromelain is an enzyme found in certain fruits including pineapples and kiwi. Gelatin is a protein -- specifically, collagen. When bromelain and gelatin meet, the enzyme does what it does best; it gets busy breaking down the protein into its basic amino acids. This is great for tenderizing a steak, but it's not so great if you want your gelatin to set into a smooth, solid panna cotta.
If you must have pineapple with your panna cotta, there's a little trick to avoid the problem: Heat bromelain-rich fruits (or used canned varieties, which are heated during the canning process) before using them with gelatin to inactivate the enzyme.
The ratio of fat content to gelatin is key to a perfect panna cotta, but don't let that scare you away from playing around with the creamy ingredients you choose for your dish. While cream is preferred, panna cotta can also be made with milk, half-and-half, buttermilk and even low-fat options. Panna cotta is also friendly to dairy alternative substitutions, such as coconut milk (or cream), soy milk, or your favorite nut milk (such as almond or hazelnut).
The lower the fat content, especially if you use low-fat milk or milk alternative, the more likely you'll need to increase the amount of gelatin used to keep your ratios in balance -- depending on the fat content of your milk or cream of choice you may need as little as half a teaspoon to as much 3 teaspoons of gelatin per cup of milk to achieve the desired "jiggle"' [source: Parsons].
Simmer, don't boil; that's your motto -- or should be -- for heating your panna cotta base of cream and sugar. Always go slow and low when you heat cream for a dairy-based dessert to avoid separation (that means keeping temperatures slightly below the boiling point, so don't walk away while you're heating your base).
Never allow your gelatin to boil, either; boiled gelatin won't thicken, and your panna cotta won't properly set if that happens. Also, be sure you don't bloom your gelatin in hot water -- gelatin is no good at temperatures higher than 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius), and don't add dissolved gelatin to a cold mixture; both will leave lumps in what should be a smooth and velvety panna cotta.
And what if your panna cotta just won't set, despite your efforts? One of the tricks to the dish is achieving the right balance of gelatin in your mixture, and sometimes you just need to try again. Heat the mixture over low heat. Separate out a small cupful and add extra (bloomed) gelatin to it; slowly pour it into the heated mixture, stirring constantly, and allow it to set -- again.
If you plan to unmold your panna cotta for presentation, be sure to chill it for about four hours before you try to release it. And if you run into any trouble, there are a few tricks to try if you encounter some stubbornness from your delicate dessert.
The perfect panna cotta molds are small, only about 5 or 6 ounces (to hold about 4 ounces, or a half a cup, of your mixture). You'll always turn out perfectly-shaped panna cotta if you give yourself a little insurance before filling those molds. Oil each mold with a neutral, flavorless oil -- and use a light hand while doing so -- for best results.
And if your panna cotta just won't release, what's the harm in eating it out of its mold? Avoid this whole problem by pouring and setting your dessert into containers intended for serving.
Kids are more likely to eat food they've helped to prepare. Here are 5 Italian dishes kids can make from HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 5 Tips for Making Perfect Panna Cotta
Did you know you can still enjoy panna cotta if you're a vegetarian or vegan? In addition to substituting a non-dairy milk alternative instead of cream, also try substituting gelatin with a gelatin alternative, including agar (also known as agar-agar and kanten), carrageen or Irish moss -- just keep in mind that substituting this flavorless vegan-friendly ingredient for gelatin will mean your panna cotta won't be quite as jiggly as one that's cooked with traditional ingredients. Still tasty!
More Great Links
- Bradley, Susan S. "Mastering Panna Cotta -- with Six Variations." Luna Cafe. June 19, 2011. (May 9, 2014) http://thelunacafe.com/mastering-panna-cotta-with-six-variations/
- Durand, Faith. "How To Make Panna Cotta." The Kitchn. Feb. 12, 2014. (May 9, 2014) http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-panna-cotta-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-200070
- Durand, Faith. "Panna cotta: Easy to make, easy to adapt to dairy-free, vegan diets (recipe)." The Times-Picayune. March 11, 2014. (May 9, 2014) http://www.nola.com/food/index.ssf/2014/03/panna_cotta_easy_to_make_easy.html
- Ho, Emily. "Gelling Without Gelatin: Vegetarian and Vegan Substitutes." The Kitchn. May 16, 2013. (May 9, 2014) http://www.thekitchn.com/vegetarian-alternatives-to-gelatin-189478
- Lebovitz, David. "How To Use Gelatin." April 4, 2009. (May 9, 2014) http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2009/04/how-to-use-gelatin/
- Parsons, Russ. "The California Cook: Cracking the code of panna cotta." Los Angeles Times. June 16, 2012. (May 9, 2014) http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/16/food/la-fo-calcook-20120616
- Taste. "Gelatine leaves." Page 13. November 2011. (May 9, 2014) http://www.taste.com.au/how+to/articles/6391/gelatine+leaves
- UCSB ScienceLine - University of California Santa Barbara. "Why can't you put pineapple pieces into jello?" (May 9, 2014) http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=1968
- Weisenthal, Lauren. "Sweet Technique: How to Make Panna Cotta." Serious Eats. July 18, 2011. (May 9, 2014) http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2011/07/sweet-technique-how-to-make-panna-cotta.html