This is one of those dishes I avoid ordering because I’m always worried it’s not going to live up to how good it could and should be. The ultimate panna cotta should have the perfect wobble — this is an indication of the texture, which should be silky, creamy, melt in the mouth but not too bouncy or rubbery. I’d rather a panna cotta that is more wobbly than too set, personally. I’ve made panna cottas that you can bounce off the wall in the past, so believe me I’ve come a long way in experimenting and recipe testing to get to this final recipe that I love!
Panna cotta should also be creamy but also not too rich, I think, so I like to use a mixture of half milk, half cream, which gives a delightfully creamy texture but is not over the top rich. I also like a tiny bit of yogurt, which I feel gives it a nice, welcome hint of acidity (you could easily leave it out, otherwise you could use buttermilk perhaps instead of the milk and yogurt — I don’t find this easily in Italy but I think it would similarly give a nice flavour and bit of tang).
Think of this dessert as a blank canvas to which you can add your favourite aromas and toppings — in fact, panna cotta, or “cooked cream” is not an ancient dish but one that was invented, they say, in the 19th century. I think this gives it a little more leeway for creativity without people having to get up in arms over the “correct”, “traditional”, codified recipe. Piemonte lays claim to the origins of panna cotta but it’s not all perfectly clear so it’s become diffused over pretty much all of Italy, today you will even find that it is often made with a box mix from the supermarket! But you’ll see once you try it how really, really simple it is to prepare and how much more delicious it is when you make it yourself with these little tweaks that bring it up a notch.
Going back to this being a blank canvas, feel free to add vanilla, or lemon zest, or infuse the cream with some spices (cardamom? cinnamon?). I like to leave it quite simple and play with the topping — my favourite is just some seasonal, fresh fruit that has just been macerated in a bit of sugar and lemon juice. I’ve been making these in our market cooking classes in Enoteca Marilu with whatever seasonal produce is available — strawberries, cherries, peaches, figs, they’ll all be delicious.
If you want to bring out their flavour (and colour), you can cook them a little bit too — plums would be wonderful this way, just put the same mixture in a small saucepan and cook over a low heat, stirring, with a splash of extra water, until the fruit is a little softer and the colour and flavour deepens, about 5-7 minutes.
Note: If you don’t eat pork or are vegetarian, unfortunately this dessert is not for you. Panna cotta is made with gelatin, which is an animal product. In Italy although it is often called colla di pesce, it is not derived from fish but from pork.
My ultimate panna cotta
For the panna cotta:
6 grams gelatin sheets (colla di pesce in Italian)
250 ml (1 cup) cream
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) milk
1 heaping tablespoon natural yogurt
3 tablespoons sugar
250 gr strawberries, cherries or other fresh, ripe fruit
1 tablespoon sugar (or to taste)
juice of 1/2 lemon (also the zest if you like)
For the panna cotta, first soak the gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water for 5-10 minutes to let them soften.
In the meantime, heat the cream, milk, yogurt and sugar together until the mixture is steaming but don’t let it come to a boil. Stir to help dissolve the sugar, then take off the heat, squeeze out the gelatin that you’ve had softening in a bowl of water and add it to the cream mixture. It should disappear like magic. Let the mixture cool slightly (if you’re in a hurry it helps to transfer this to another bowl), this is so the mixture sets in a more homogenous way. Pour or ladle the cream mixture into ramekins and set in the fridge for at least 3-4 hours or until set. I like to do this the night before if possible. If it looks too wobbly still, you just need to be a bit more patient and let it set longer.
While waiting, cut up the fruit into small pieces (remove stalks or pits or seeds if necessary) for the topping and marinate with the sugar and lemon juice until needed.
To serve, it helps to have a bowl of very warm water nearby to dip the bottom of the ramekins in — this will melt the gelatin so it slips out easily. Word of warning, though, if you hold it in the warm water for too long you will have also some extra liquid cream come out on the plate too! Tip onto plates and top with a spoonful of fruit. Alternatively you can serve the panna cotta in the ramekins themselves, just top with the fruit and it’s ready.