And, as promised, here's the first recipe from Gina DePalma's Dolce Italiano: Desserts From the Babbo Kitchen. DePalma herself recommended the recipes we'll be featuring this week, choosing them for ease of preparation and maximum deliciousness in mind. About her Heavenly Panna Cotta she says, "It's a panna cotta I made with ricotta cheese—sheep's milk if possible. I love it because of the pure, direct hit of dairy flavor and the fact that it becomes a blank canvas for so many other flavorsa drizzle of chocolate, a spoon of fruit, a dribble of Vincotto."
Sheet Gelatin Versus Powdered Gelatin
Sheet or leaf gelatin is the standard in Europe and the preferred choice of professional pastry chefs. It is now becoming available to home cooks, which is good news, since it is much easier to use than powdered gelatin. Four sheets are equal in gelling power to one 1/4-ounce package of powdered gelatin. Both kinds need to be softened before they are added to a recipe, and heat is used to dissolve the gelatin into the other ingredients; the recipe is eventually chilled to cause the gelling action.
Pastry chefs favor sheet gelatin because it is incredibly easy to use. Simply place the dried sheets of gelatin in a bowl of cold tap water (make sure that it is cold or the gelatin will start to dissolve into the water). After 2 or 3 minutes, the sheets of gelatin will become limp, with the consistency of very soft noodles. Remove them from the water, allowing the excess water to drip off, then place them on a paper or linen towel and gently pat them once or twice. You can then whisk the sheets into the hot liquid of your recipe.
Powdered gelatin is a bit trickier. If there is water in the recipe, place half of it in a small bowl and sprinkle on the gelatin to soften. Heat the remaining water to scald it, then whisk it in to dissolve the gelatin. Another option is to combine the gelatin in a small saucepan with a portion of the sugar from the recipe. Add some of the liquid from the recipe, whisking to combine, and place over low heat to scald the mixture. It is important to check the mixture with a spoon, allowing it to fall away and examining the spoon to make sure there are no undissolved particles of gelatin.
Place the ricotta and 1/2 cup milk in a medium bowl and whisk vigorously until the ricotta is smooth and lump-free. Place the heavy cream and sugar in a medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean with the flat side of a small knife and add them to the pan along with the bean. Place the mixture over medium heat and bring just to the boiling point, whisking occasionally. In the meantime, place the gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water to soften them.
When the cream mixture has scalded, turn off the heat. Remove the gelatin from the water, pat away the excess water with a soft towel, and add the gelatin to the cream mixture, whisking it in thoroughly to dissolve it. Whisk in the remaining 1/2 cup milk.
Gradually pour the liquid into the bowl with the ricotta, whisking constantly until the mixture is completely smooth. Remove the vanilla bean and strain the mixture through a chinois or fine-meshed sieve. Divide the panna cotta among 6 dessert glasses and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours.
Before serving, drizzle the surface of each panna cotta with 1 or 2 teaspoons of warm chestnut honey or a few drops of vincotto.