1 Classic Panna Cotta, Endless Variations

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Panna cotta is one of my absolute favorite desserts; it's a light and simple canvas for all kinds of seasonal fruit, and unbelievably easy to customize by steeping the milk and cream with split vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, peach pits, citrus zest, dried lavender, aromatic herbs, or even sassafras—to be honest, whatever sounds good.

You can keep it softly set and serve it in a sparkling glass, or let it gel a little more firmly and pot it in a Dixie cup to unmold as a plated dessert. What's more, panna cotta has an extraordinary shelf life—it can keep 10 days or longer in the fridge, if tightly wrapped and protected from savory odors. Those qualities earned panna cotta a full-time spot on an ever-changing dessert menu back in my restaurant days, where endless incarnations kept the format fresh. Given all those possibilities for customization, I think everyone should have a bare-bones panna cotta recipe on hand—one that you can adapt again and again to personal tastes.

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With strongly flavored panna cottas, regular supermarket milk and cream are just fine, but it's worth the splurge to shop local if you're making a subtler version, like vanilla bean or almond. These types of milk and cream are typically pasteurized at much lower temperatures, so they taste fresher and grassier. That's not a mandate by any means, only a footnote to say that if you have a local dairy producer that you love, panna cotta will make those products the stars. But regardless of what type of dairy you prefer, panna cotta starts by steeping milk and cream with some sort of aromatic—in this case, a fruity-floral Tahitian vanilla bean.

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Simply warm everything until it's steaming-hot, then cover and steep for an hour or more, stashing the pot in the fridge if you're letting it sit longer than four hours. You can steep the aromatics for whatever length of time is convenient for your schedule, though flavor extraction for vanilla will top out around 24 hours, and some aromatics (like tea or lavender) may get bitter after just a few minutes. So take that timeline with a grain of salt when experimenting on your own.

After steeping, bloom a bit of gelatin in milk. (I'm a huge fan of bovine gelatin, which tends to have a more neutral flavor than gelatin derived from pork.) Blooming shouldn't be done for much longer than 10 to 15 minutes in advance, as extended blooming periods can actually increase gelatin's thickening power beyond the desired range. If you're not familiar with the ins and outs of gelatin-centric recipes, take a minute to read up on the unexpected variables that can cause gelatin to misbehave.

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While the gelatin is blooming, rewarm the dairy until it's steaming-hot once again, and scrape out the flavorful goo inside the vanilla pod (or on the surface of the cinnamon stick, et cetera) to make sure none of that potent flavor is lost. Next, shut off the heat, and whisk in the sugar, salt, and prepared gelatin until it's all fully dissolved. Keeping the panna cotta base below a proper simmer not only helps it cool down more quickly, it eliminates the risk of overheating the gelatin, which can damage its gelling power.

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Since the recipe is so simple, you can add dimension with a batch of quick-toasted sugar or toasted sugar left over from blind-baking a pie. You can even layer in some straight-up caramel flavor with sugar roasted to the darker end of the spectrum. Just take care with substitutes like dark brown sugar or Demerara, which can be acidic enough to curdle the panna cotta if the base is too hot.

When the gelatin has fully dissolved, pour the panna cotta base into a measuring cup or a container with a spout. If necessary, the mixture can also be strained at this time to remove smaller fragments of herbs, spices, or other aromatics. Let the panna cotta cool, occasionally whisking to keep the mixture homogeneous. Once it's reached approximately room temperature, divide it into serving cups (lightly greased, if you'd like to unmold the individual panna cottas later on).

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It's important not to skip this cooling step, as the hot panna cotta will otherwise have time to separate into distinct layers of milk and cream, with the vanilla seeds or other aromatics settling along the very bottom. While those layers can look pretty rad if you're game for a more deconstructed vibe, it's not an effect you want to discover by surprise.

Cover each panna cotta with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until it's set; the time will vary depending on the size and shape of your containers, but expect four to six hours. Meanwhile, prepare a topping of some sort. With summer cherries at their best, I'm happy to toss them with a bit of sugar and leave it at that, but a whole array of accompaniments, from herbed melons to a jammy rhubarb compote, will do well.

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Offset by a spoonful of your favorite fruit, cold and creamy panna cotta is a thing of beauty, all wobbly and soft. Whether it tastes like fresh milk and cream with vanilla and nothing more, or something more spicy and bold, panna cotta is a simple but elegant dessert to finish off any meal.

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