Panna cotta is a bite of heaven. Italian for “cooked cream”, panna cotta is one of those desserts that seems like only a professional should attempt making it. I kept putting off making it because I figured since only fancy restaurants have them, they must be more complicated than everyone says. It’s elegant and eye-catching, but it is so very easy to make.
If you have never had panna cotta, it’s not too hard to imagine how it tastes. The basic ingredients are very simple: cream, whole milk, and gelatin. Add to that a fruit flavor, like apricot, and it tastes just like apricots and cream. The allure of the dessert I believe is in the texture and the way you can play with its shape. Instead of just pouring cream over fruit, panna cotta gives you the desired “mouth feel” as they say. It’s so silky smooth, and when layered with fruit, you get that zing of fruit mixed with the sweetness of the cream. Panna cotta is one of my go-to desserts now, and that is because it’s so versatile in its form. Because of the gelatin, I can place it in various molds or layer it in individual shot glasses. This versatility allows you to be very creative and play with aesthetic.
Some feel that panna cotta only offers aesthetic and not taste. This is probably because those people have never had the right kind of panna cotta. When done improperly, it can taste almost like nothing – like eating plain jell-o with a hint of cream. We’re not going for cream jell-o here. We’re going for a rich cream flavor that is lightly held together by gelatin – it should almost taste like ice cream, but light and clean. So be sure to use full-fat cream from a brand that you can trust to give you a rich and full-bodied cream. The same goes for the whole milk.
Another dimension of panna cotta is the set. If you’ve ever had panna cotta that does taste like jell-o, it probably had too much gelatin or was left too long to set. The best panna cotta to me is one that has a good jiggle – set enough to eliminate any liquid, but not firm like jell-o. It should cut softer than butter and melt in the mouth. To get your preferred set, you’ll have to play around with timing. I find that I like my panna cotta if it’s chilled for 4 hours after pouring.
The cream needs a bit of acidity to pop, so fruit is traditionally added. You can add it to the cream mixture or add it in a separate layer like this one. I like the layered look, and you can have fun tasting the layers in different proportions. All you need for this recipe is just a jar of good jam. Reduce it in a saucepan and add gelatin to make sure it sets, and violà! Super easy!
This oblique layer technique was done using plastic lids (like the ones you can get at fast food restaurants!). Oil them, set them on their side using a muffin tin, pour the first layer in and allow to set, and then pour the second layer on top and allow to set.