If you looked in our fridge, you’d see sundry dairy products: milk for me and Papa, milk for Mama, milk for mama’s coffee, buttermilk for pancakes… Clearly, we have a yen for the stuff. So when Mama decided to show me how to turn the milk into something you can eat with a spoon, I was intrigued.
Panna cotta, in its simplest explanation, is eggless Italian custard. It’s cream that’s been cooked with a smidge of sugar, combined with gelatin, and allowed to set. What could be simpler? And the “formula” is easy enough for a kid like me to remember:
3 cups liquid to 1 package gelatin
That’s it! Mama chooses to divide the liquid equally between heavy cream and half-and-half. She could divvy it up differently or use regular milk, goat’s milk, or even nondairy creamer. She noted that non-milks such as coconut milk and almond milk don’t have enough fat in them to properly set without further tweaks to the recipe. They’ll come together, but they won’t have the proper texture, which Mama says should be solid enough to sit on a spoon but soft enough to wobble like the backs of her arms when she waves.
Mama says there’s little reason to fear gelatin (unless you’re talking about those neon-hued sugar-laden varieties or this; then be afraid, be very afraid). While it’s true that gelatin is an animal product, it’s highly processed. So, much like the wasp in a fig, it’s not like you’re eating an actual bone. There are more natural varieties (such as Jensen’s) available, and a vegetarian alternative is agar agar, which is fun to say. Gelatin also comes in sheets, but we’re sticking with the powdered kind. Either variety basically has an indefinite shelf-life, so scrounge in your cupboards for a box tucked away in the back.
Working with gelatin requires a two-step process. First it needs to be bloomed, which has nothing to do with James Joyce and everything to do with coating it with cool liquid.
Then it needs to be melted by either heating it over a low heat or combining it with a hot (not boiling) liquid. Using a hot liquid to bloom gelatin will impede the blooming process, whereas boiling the gelatin at any point will deactivate its gelling properties. (Though isn’t it interesting that you could melt a batch of finished gelatin and reset it several times?)
Because this recipe involves a lot of hot liquid, Mama did most of the work. She made it just before she cooked dinner (chicken piccata, steamed green beans with toasted almonds, and mushroom rice pilaf), and by the time we cleaned up the dinner mess, it was ready. I love how it jiggles but even more, I love how velvety this is. It’s creamy and subtly sweet. What’s more, it looks fancypants but isn’t.
Basic Panna Cotta
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups half-and-half, divided
¼ cup sugar (or more, to taste)
1 package gelatin (or 2 ¼ tsp)
Vanilla bean/vanilla extract/other flavorings, to taste
In a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream, 1 cup of the half-and-half, and the sugar. Set over medium-low heat and gently warm, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is hot and the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Do not boil. (Remove from the heat, if necessary, or turn the heat down to low.)
Meanwhile, pour the remaining half-and-half in a shallow bowl, then sprinkle the packet of gelatin over the top in an even layer. Set aside to bloom the gelatin, about 5 minutes. When the surface looks wrinkly and there’s no dry powder remaining, it’s ready. (If there’s a lot of dry powder, then gently stir to get it wet.)
Once the cream mixture is hot, stir in any extracts for flavor,* off-heat. Start with ½ tsp and go from there. Taste it. See if it needs more flavor or more sweetness to your liking. Stir in the gelatin mixture with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Stir and stir until all the gelatin is dissolved. (Check the back of the spoon/spatula—you’ll see little globs of unmelted gelatin if they’re there.)
To serve panna cotta in glasses, jars, or dishes, simply pour it into the appropriate vessel. (You might want to pour the finished mixture into a glass measure for easier and neater pouring first.) Do this carefully so it doesn’t splash all up the sides of the glass, which you’ll see once it’s set. Cover with plastic wrap (not touching the surface of the panna cotta) and chill in the fridge until set, 1 to 2 hours. (If your glasses have already been in the fridge, it’ll set a little faster.)
To unmold the panna cotta for a fancier presentation, lightly coat or spray custard cups or ramekins with a neutral-flavored oil (e.g., grapeseed or canola). Divide the finished mixture among them, cover, and chill as above. To serve, dip each mold in hot water for 10 seconds, run a knife around the edge, and invert onto a plate. (It helps to put the plate on the ramekin, and then invert.) If the panna cotta doesn’t easily slip out of the mold, then dip it in the hot water again, making sure the water comes up as high as the panna cotta.
Either way, serve it topped with fresh berries, berries made into a sauce, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, crumbled gingersnap or thin-mint cookies, etc. The possibilities are really endless.
Makes 6 1/2-cup servings
*Note: If using whole spices as flavoring, such as the seeds and pod of a vanilla bean or cardamom pods or cinnamon sticks, etc., steep them in the cream as it heats. Remove before adding the gelatin mixture. Also, alternatives to sugar seem to work as well as the white stuff: stevia, honey, agave, even those ghastly fake sugars (but you didn’t hear that from me).