Monday, March 13, 2006

the panna cotta trials

I decided to make panna cotta because it is a dessert that I have never been very fond of; possibly, I just haven’t had “good” panna cotta. Initially, I thought about making panna cotta for SHF, but instead I decided to make ice cream. I felt guilty that I didn't take on the challenge. I wanted to make a dessert I didn’t like into something better – something that I might even enjoy.

Like many of the best traditional dishes, panna cotta's exact origins are unclear; however, many suggest it is a traditional Piemontese recipe. The name means "cooked cream" in Italian, and it is also known as "crema cotta". There are many variations of the recipe. Yet, it is generally made by simmering together cream, milk and sugar, adding gelatin, and then setting in the refrigerator. In Piemonte, Italy, panna cotta is often flavored with hazelnuts or spices, such as cinnamon and nutmeg, and served with a caramel sauce. Other popular pairings include fresh fruit, berries and other gelatin based desserts.

After looking through many cookbooks and pastry books, I chose four panna cotta recipes: vanilla bean; buttermilk; crème fraîche; and goat milk yogurt. I wanted to choose four very distinct, but natural, flavours for a pure, unadulterated pannacotta. Having said that, I did however pair the panna cottas with other flavours for my own interest and to show various ways that it can be served.

vanilla bean panna cotta with dried fruit poached in port with vanilla tuile cookies

créme fraîche panna cotta with raspberry wine jelly and hazelnut macaroons

goat milk yogurt panna cotta with blood orange sorbet, blood oranges and caramelized pecan

buttermilk panna cotta with mango jelly, strawberries, pineappple and vanilla tuile cookie

My preference in descending order:

1. vanilla bean panna cotta: it was soft, subtle and creamy, without being too rich.
2. crème fraîche panna cotta: the nice tangy flavour of crème fraiche helped enhance and compliment other flavours.
3. goat milk yogurt panna cotta: a good, but unusual taste; it needs to be paired with another strong flavour to achieve a nice balance.
4. buttermilk panna cotta: I enjoy the flavour of buttermilk, but it just didn’t have the same impact for me as the other panna cottas

A good panna cotta to me is one that contains quality ingredients, that tastes pure and creamy (without being too rich) and that has just enough gelatin to give it its characteristic sexy wobbliness.

5 tips on making panna cotta:

1. Purchase good quality ingredients, as there are usually only 3-5 of them in a panna cotta.
2. The exact amount of gelatin is crucial! If you add too much, you will have the consistency of jello, and if you add too little, you will have a limp liquid cream. The consistency should be a soft, silky cream that is slightly set, almost too delicate to handle.
3. If you are de-moulding the panna cotta, dip the mould in warm water to release it. If the water is too hot, the panna cotta will melt. When de-moulding, take your time, be gentle, and carefully loosen the edges with slightly wet fingers so that you can wiggle it out.
4. If you are de-moulding your panna cotta, make some tuile cookies in the shape of the base of your pannacotta (e.g. if you are making a round panna cotta, make circle tuile cookies). Place the cookie on the bottom of your panna cotta so that, when you invert the mold, the panna cotta rests on the cookie. This will help you transfer the panna cotta onto the plate without denting or destroying the delicate and silky cream. The cookie will also give you a nice crunch, which will provide contrast to the softness of your panna cotta.
5. If you are wanting to pair a jelly or fruit with your panna cotta, pick a flavour that will compliment, stand up to or help cut the intensity of this creamy dessert.

After a crazy weekend of panna cotta making, I am delighted to say that I actually do like panna cotta. Having never had good version in a restaurant myself, I urge all you who have never had good experiences with this dessert to make it at home and give it another try.

Here is the recipe that I enjoyed the most. Ironically it is the simplest.

vanilla bean panna cotta:

2 Tbsp cold water
1 3/4 tsp powdered gelatin
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup homogenized milk
4 Tbsp sugar
1 vanilla bean

Pour 2 tablespoons of water into a small bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over water. Let it stand until softened, about 5 minutes. Combine heavy cream, milk and sugar in a saucepan, and place over medium heat. Cut vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape the seeds into the pot and add in the vanilla bean as well. Let the vanilla bean infuse in the cream for at least 5 minutes. Bring the mixture to a boil and then take it off the heat. Add the softened gelatin and mix until the gelatin has dissolved. Strain through a fine chinios/strainer into a new bowl and discard the vanilla beans. Chill over an ice bath just until cool. Pour into small moulds, bowls, glasses or ramekins and chill for at least 3 hours. Makes approximately 8, 1/2 cup servings. It is probably a good idea to make this a day ahead as gelatin never sets as quickly as we might wish.


Tania said...

Four panna cotta recipes, and with such exotic accompaniments so gorgeously presented?? My spoon and I want to come over for samples!

After all that, I'm glad your experiments made you into a panna cotta fan! Can I ask where the recipes are from? I'm particularly intrigued by the creme fraiche one.

Ivonne said...


Should you ever require taste testers, I'm willing to donate my palate and tummy. Of course this is purely unselfish on my part. It's solely for the good of your blog.

It has nothing to do with the fact that I adore panna cotta and would probably crawl on hand and knee to get some.

Nothing at all.

These all look incredible!

By the way, when I was researching Piemontese cuisine for my blog I did come across several references to panna cotta having originated there.

Thanks for sharing these recipes!

sam said...

Hi Tania,

Thanks for the inspiration with the panna cotta. Sometimes I get carried away a bit. I wish you and Ivonne were over last week, I had enough panna cotta for everyone. The recipes are from the following (in descending order of the images): Nancy Silverton, Claudia Fleming, Mario Batali and Martha Stewart. All known for good panna cottas, Italian cooking (Mario) and good solid recipes.

Hi Ivonne,

I love your writing and your humour. I appreciate you donating your taste buds... I'll let you know the next time I'm making panna cotta. The dried fruit poached in port is heaven, so I will make that for you too! Speaking of tasting I was wondering if anyone has done a canadian blogging by post, that would be fun. Thanks for your comments Ivonne.

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