Why It Works
- A lengthy steep extracts more flavor from aromatics like Tahitian vanilla.
- Keeping the heat below a boil will protect the gelatin from thermal degradation.
- Cooling and whisking the base before dividing it into portions will keep the panna cotta from separating into layers of milk and cream.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
For the Flavored Base:
14 ounces heavy cream (about 1 3/4 cups; 395g)
8 ounces whole milk (about 1 cup; 225g)
1 Tahitian vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds reserved (see notes)
2 1/2 ounces sugar (about 1/3 cup; 70g)
1/2 teaspoon (2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or use the same weight
For the Gelatin:
1/4 ounce unflavored gelatin powder (about 2 1/8 teaspoons, though volume may vary by brand; 7g), such as NOW Foods (see notes)
2 ounces whole milk (about 1/4 cup; 55g)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 to 8 ounces fresh fruit (volume will vary; 170 to 225g), plain or sprinkled with sugar to taste (optional)
For the Flavored Base: In a 3-quart stainless steel saucier, combine cream, milk, and vanilla bean pod over medium heat. When it is steaming-hot, remove from heat, cover to prevent evaporation, and steep between 1 and 24 hours, depending on your schedule or preferred intensity of flavor (see notes). Meanwhile, rub vanilla seeds into sugar to break up clumps, then combine with salt.
For the Gelatin: Just before proceeding to step 3, combine gelatin powder, milk, and vanilla extract in a small bowl, mixing with a fork until smooth; set aside to bloom for about 10 minutes.
Rewarm dairy until steaming-hot. Remove vanilla pod and use a flexible spatula to scrape out the flavorful goo inside to mix with the dairy. (The pod can be washed, dried, and reused in another recipe.) Off heat, whisk in vanilla/sugar mixture and bloomed gelatin. Transfer to a 4-cup measuring cup with a spout and cool until lukewarm, stirring from time to time to ensure the panna cotta remains homogeneous.
Once cool, set aside 6 ramekins or small serving glasses and fill each with about 3 1/2 ounces (1 shy cup; 100g) of the panna cotta base. Cover each with plastic and refrigerate until softly set, at least 4 hours, or longer if you'd like a firmer consistency. (The panna cotta's texture will continue to evolve over time; however, after 12 hours of chilling, it will reach its maximum firmness and will not set up any further.) Serve individual panna cottas with fresh or lightly macerated fruit, if desired.
I prefer the more neutral flavor and aroma of bovine gelatin compared to varieties derived from pork, but any brand of powdered American gelatin will work quite well. Be aware that outside the US, powdered gelatin may be formulated to a slightly higher strength. Take care when adapting the recipe to sheet gelatin, and read up on the unexpected variables that may cause gelatin to misbehave.
In place of or in addition to a split vanilla bean, the milk and cream can be steeped with aromatic ingredients like cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger, lemon peel, peach pits, cocoa nibs, lemongrass, etc.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 25g||33%|
|Saturated Fat 16g||80%|
|Total Carbohydrate 20g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 19g|
|Vitamin C 13mg||65%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|