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Panna cotta will steal your heart

February 11, 2011

Who bakes on Valentine’s Day? Most of us don’t, but we should. And the first thing you might want to try is panna cotta. A few minutes at the stove suffice to bring together this simple Italian dessert, a mixture of cream and sugar, thickened with gelatin. Though it’s easy enough to make by hand, the magical and sensuous texture will make any heart swoon. Its simplicity can be your little secret.

The only reason I waited so long to make panna cotta myself is that, to be honest, gelatin scares me a little. It’s not that I’m squeamish in the kitchen. I have a habit of baking elaborate desserts. But gelatin? There’s something mysteriously scientific about it. It reminds me of pipettes and Bunsen burners. As it turns out, there’s really nothing simpler. Pour your cream mixture into ramekins, and you can focus on what’s important—time with the person you love. The magic happens as the panna cotta chills and gels into a dessert that’s creamy without being heavy. 

The name means “cooked cream” in Italian, but what’s in a name? It doesn’t have to be made with cream. Part of the beauty of panna cotta is its versatility. Using half and half, whole milk, or even lowfat milk creates the same firm, silky result. Unlike a custard, where egg proteins have to form a fragile network across liquid molecules at just the right temperature so the concoction sets smoothly, panna cotta has the power of gelatin as insurance for its perfect texture. Unmolded, panna cotta holds its shape with a pristine, clean-edged beauty. The milky whiteness almost glows. It feels like eating a reflection of the moon.

For purists, panna cotta’s silky texture has a magic that bears no tampering with, no added flavors, no distractions. But if you choose the flavor route, coffee and chocolate are traditional (and make perfect sense paired with cream and milk). For Valentine’s Day, raspberry coulis adds a decorative blush of color. Such lovely results for so little trouble.

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Panna Cotta

3 cups of cream (substitute part with half and half or whole, lowfat or nonfat milk, as desired)

1 package (¼ ounce) unflavored gelatin

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup sugar

Stir the gelatin into 1 cup of the liquid and let dissolve, stirring (3-5 minutes). Add the remaining liquid and sugar and heat on low until steam just begins to rise from the surface (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and pour into ramekins (about 4, depending on size). Chill until set, about 4 hours or overnight. To unmold, dip ramekins in hot water for 10-15 seconds, then invert into plates.

Raspberry Coulis

1 package frozen raspberries

½ cup sugar

Stir raspberries and sugar in a saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Cool before pouring over panna cotta. Adjust consistency by adding water to thin, raspberry jam to thicken.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. marilyn bourbon permalink
    February 12, 2011 6:18 am

    i can’t wait to try this. it makes my mouth water in anticipation.

  2. February 14, 2011 7:07 am

    It’s just so easy. I like adding almond extract, though I’m the only one who really loves it that way. And for an easy chocolate version, you can just use lowfat chocolate milk. It’s so much lighter and healthier than chocolate ice cream or pudding or mousse.

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