What is panna cotta?
At first sight, it may look like any ordinary pudding, but there is much more to it than meets the eye: this creamy white tower-shaped dessert drizzled with caramel sauce is the ultimate milk pudding. We are referring, of course, to Italian panna cotta, one of the most indulgent delights of traditional Italian cuisine.
How do you make panna cotta?
The traditional Italian panna cotta recipe calls for cream, sugar and gelatine although, over time, numerous and increasingly lighter versions have rather strayed away from the original concept. Variations can be made to the basic dessert but also to the sauce: the more traditional caramel sauce may be replaced by strawberry, raspberry or melted chocolate, not to mention the more outlandish versions flavoured with aniseed or cinnamon.
What makes a good panna cotta?
The mark of a perfectly executed panna cotta is its stability. The challenge for pastry chefs is to reduce the quantity of thickener as much as possible while preserving consistency and creaminess. The secret is never exceeding eight grams of gelatine for every 500 grams of liquid. The quality of the panna cotta will also depend on real cream being used over milk.
The origins of panna cotta
The Italian origins of this dessert seem to be concentrated in the region of Piedmont, which has earned it the prestigious seal of approval as a traditional Italian regional food product. Legend would have it that it originally came from the Langhe wine-growing district, but similar cream-based desserts also exist in France, England and Greece. Even though traditional tiramisu “takes the cake” in this respect, there is no Italian mid-range restaurant that has not put it on the menu at one time or another: a recipe often interpreted by starred celebrity chefs. The three Michelin-starred chef Enrico Crippa, for instance, has turned it into a miniature work of art inspired by Matisse.
How do you serve panna cotta?
Panna cotta works well dressed with seasonal fruit, vegetables and herbs, such as fresh mint, raspberry, peas and apricot, as well as amaretto. Aurora Mazzucchelli dresses it with nasturtium, peas and strawberries. Maurilio Garola, from the Ciau del Tornavento restaurant in Alba, has turned it into an ice cream adorned with petals of white truffle. Pietro Leemann offers a light all-vegetable interpretation based on yoghurt: to please vegans and vegetarians, the gelatine can be replaced by a natural thickener such as agar agar. Not to mention the savoury versions: with parmesan and pear sauce, or with salmon, saffron, basil and herbs, cauliflower, pumpkin and rosemary, and turmeric and mint. The method does not vary and, having eliminated the sugar, all you need to do is add the surprise ingredient suitably blended.
How do you store panna cotta?
Panna cotta can be frozen so long as you don’t skip the refrigerator phase. If you need it for dinner, place it in the fridge in the morning and you can serve it to guests at 9pm, after adding your favourite sauce.
My favourite panna cotta? Aromatised with lavender and served with prune sauce.
This article was updated on 15/03/2023.