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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 refer to Italian panna cotta recipe of course, one of the most indulgent delights of traditional Italian cuisine.
The traditional Italian panna cotta recipe calls for cream, sugar and gelatine although, in the course of time, the 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.
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. The candid dessert makes the perfect background for a mosaic with seasonal fruit and vegetable flavoured tessera, such as fresh mint, raspberry, peas, apricot and amaretto. Aurora Mazzucchelli dresses it with nasturtium, peas and strawberries. Maurilio Garola, from the Ciau del Tornavento restaurant located in Alba, has turned it into an ice-cream adorned with petals of white truffle. Pietro Leemann offers us a light all-vegetable interpretation based on yogurt: to please vegans and vegetarians, the gelatine can be replayed by a natural thickener such as agar agar. Not to mention the savoury versions: with parmesan and pear sauce, or based on salmon, saffron, basil and herbs, cauliflower, pumpkin and rosemary, 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.
The mark of a perfectly executed panna cotta is its stability. If it wobbles like a little girl perched on high-heeled shoes, you can be certain that the chef has gone overboard with the gelatine. The palate sensation is rubbery and sticky. The challenge for pastry chefs consists in reducing the quantity of thickener as much as possible while preserving consistency and creaminess. The secret, if you want to try it out for yourselves, is that of never exceeding 8 grams of gelatine for every 500 grams of liquid. Do you want to give a hard time to someone who has just served you a poor panna cotta? This is the question to ask: "What percentage of real cream does this dessert contain?". If you see him mumbling some excuse it means that, in actual fact, it is only made from milk which costs far less. If, on the other hand, it is not the cost but the number of calories of this indulgent sweet that scares you, you may choose to replace some of the cream with full-fat milk, even though this will obviously alter the taste.
Finally, some good news for those who like to cook in advance: panna cotta may 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 9 pm, after adding your favourite sauce. My favourite panna cotta? Aromatized with lavender and served with prune sauce.