Panna Cotta, Italian for “cooked cream”, is truly among the simplest of all desserts. It is a pudding which, in its most fundamental form, is made with cream, sugar and gelatin. It is believed to have originated in the Piedmont Region of Northern Italy where the earliest recipes did not specifically call for gelatin but instead included a step where fish bones were boiled to extract collagen. Collagen of course is the basis of gelatin and when added to the cream and sugar it would set the mixture. Today panna cotta is made with gelatin, which eases the process to create this wonderful dessert. Properly made, it should be firm and silky smooth with a gentle wiggle.
Starting from its basic form, panna cotta can be made to have a diverse range of tastes, textures and qualities depending on the type or types of dairy and the flavoring agents used. For example it could be made lush and decadent using heavy cream; or it could be made lighter using whole or reduced fat milk. It could be made dietetic using artificial sweeteners or could be made vegetarian using vegan jelling agents. Panna cotta is often flavored with vanilla beans or extract, but it can also be flavored with other extracts such as almond, hazelnut, lemon, coffee or anise; or liquors and liqueurs like rum, Limoncello, Kahlua, Amaretto and the like. Keep in mind when adding liquors and liqueurs to the basic recipe that the liquid ratio necessary to achieve the desired taste and intensity is increased thus requiring additional gelatin. When ready, panna cotta can be served alone, with berries, fruits and fruit sauces or drizzled with chocolate, honey or other syrups. It really is just a matter of your tastes and creativity.
Because panna cotta can be made so variably it just may be the perfect desert for everyone. Consider for example, that Panna Cotta:
Is simple and fast to make. About 15 minutes to prepare then cool for several hours and enjoy! It also stays fresh in the refrigerator for two days so you can make it in advance.
Can be gluten-free. As long as your dairy, gelatin and flavoring agents are gluten-free, you’re safe.
Can be low-sugar. Dairy products typically include between 2-8% lactose which is a simple sugar, and consequently panna cotta made from dairy cannot be sugar free. However, panna cotta easily can be made to be low sugar by using a sugar substitute such as Splenda®, which used in an equal measure to sugar is great for puddings. Or, sweeten the panna cotta with fruit purees.
Is egg free and can be dairy-free too. Panna cotta never includes eggs so you’re safe there. It can be made dairy free using almond, rice or coconut milks; and you can increase the fat by adding some non-dairy creamer. Just remember that the amount of gelatin needed may be different to achieve the desired firmness.
Can be vegan. By using a milk substitute and a vegan gelling agent such as Unflavored Vegan Jel by Natural Desserts.
For myself, I like to make a really decadent panna cotta using heavy cream, Greek yogurt and whole milk. The Greek yogurt flavor, extracts and other flavoring agents I use depends on the flavor profile I’m trying to achieve. For example, for a simple vanilla panna cotta, I use Greek vanilla yogurt and vanilla extract or vanilla bean. If you want to make a lemon panna cotta, use Greek lemon yogurt, lemon extract and lemon zest, etc. Keep in mind that if the Greek yogurt contains fruit on the bottom, the liquid ratio may increase thus requiring a slight bit more gelatin as also mentioned above with the addition of liquors.
Today, I decided on a vanilla pana cotta with chocolate sauce and chopped pistachios. Making the chocolate sauce is really easy and only takes a few minutes and you can find hundreds of recipes online. But I find it’s just as good to use your favorite brand of chocolate sauce, it’s up to you.
So, if you want to impress your guests with a wonderful dessert or just treat yourself, try my recipe and as always, please do let me know what you think.
Panna Cotta with Chocolate Sauce and Pistachios
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 single serving container of Greek vanilla yogurt, about 5 oz
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 – 2½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract, more to taste if desired
- ½ cup chopped pistachios
- Chocolate sprinkles
- Chocolate sauce or syrup
- Strawberries for garnish
- Place the cream in a saucepan, add the sugar and vanilla extract and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat while stirring occasionally, don’t boil.
- While the cream mixture is coming to a simmer, add milk to a bowl and sprinkle gelatin over the milk and let stand until the gelatin softens, about 5 minutes.
- Stir the gelatin mixture into the hot cream mixture until dissolved, and then stir in the Greek vanilla yogurt.
- Divide the hot mixture among 6 ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, at least 6 hours or overnight.
- Gently run a small, thin-bladed knife around the inside of the ramekin to release the panna cotta from the side of the ramekin; then dip each ramekin three-quarters of the way in warm water for 10 seconds to release the panna cotta from the bottom of the ramekin; finally, invert onto a serving dish.
- Drizzle with chocolate sauce, top with chocolate sprinkles and chopped pistachios; garnish with whole or sliced strawberries.