Me: “What dessert would you like me to make for Sunday?”
Valerie: “Well, we still have lots of lemon curd in the refrigerator…”
Me: “No way! I made them lemon curd trifle last time, this time it has to be something different.”
Valerie: “But they love lemon curd… Maybe a tart?”
Me: “Nah, no tarts. How about….. Tiramisu’? Or Strawberry Bavarian? Oh, I know, panna cotta with strawberry sauce!”
That’s when the light went on in Valerie’s eyes, so panna cotta it was! And the strawberries we found at the farmers’ market were some of the sweetest and most flavorful I have ever tasted. Other than wild strawberries that it, which can’t be beat.
This recipe will include two variations on a theme. The cream base will be the same, and the sauce variations will be the classic, with caramel sauce, and a fruit one with strawberry sauce.
I originally posted the classic panna cotta recipe on my Food Journey blog (now being integrated into this one) in response to a reader who had tasted a Lemon Panna Cotta at Town Restaurant in Honolulu – one of my favorite HNL restaurants, FYI – and e-mailed me asking if I had the recipe. Town Restaurant has been serving this versatile dessert in several variations, though I have not personally tried the lemon one yet.
I responded to my reader with the recipe for the traditional Panna Cotta – which, just for those who are not familiar with this dessert – means cooked cream, and included the instructions to make variations that would allow her to achieve what she had tasted at Town. I have not heard back from her, so I hope she received my e-mail. I then figured I might as well share this easy, yet divine recipe with everyone.
This is the panna cotta recipe I have had the longest, and it is for the first one I ever had in Italy years ago, long before I had the restaurant, where, btw, I rarely made it. Well, everyone else was making it by then, so why bother?
This classic Italian dessert has become extremely popular around the world, and with good reason. It is soooo good, so satisfying that it makes you moan as you eat it. This is possibly my Mother’s favorite dessert. She likes creamy desserts that can be eaten with a spoon more than any other, and panna cotta in any version is at the top of her list.
You may wonder why I never mention my Dad and desserts in the same paragraph. That is because, in a family of gourmet eaters who enjoy trying new things, my Father is extremely finicky with his choice of food, and his menu is very limited. Even though his quality bar is as high as mine, the list of foods he likes is very short, and generally does not include desserts except for very few: Swiss chocolate bars, preferably milk, occasionally with hazelnuts; apple cake, but only a specific recipe my family has been making for years – yes I will eventually share the recipe for that; vanilla eclairs and cannoncini (see this post for details on those); Aunt Adriana’s Rice Cake; lemon ice cream or sorbet, and fresh whipped cream with a sprinkling of cinnamon. That’s it!
Does this drive my mom nuts? Yes.
Personally, I think he is missing out. But then he is quite skinny, has been all his life, and that is because he eats so little.
PANNA COTTA : WITH CARAMEL SAUCE & WITH STRAWBERRY SAUCE
yields about 10-13 portions (small ramekins or glass jars)
For the base cream:
– 900 ml. (32 fl. oz.) heavy cream
– 250 ml. (8.4 fl. oz.) whole milk
– 200 gr. (7 oz., or 1 cup) sugar
– 12 gr. gelatin in sheets – you can find this in specialty food stores near you, or from on-line suppliers like N.Y. Cake, which is where I get it from here in the U.S. – please stick to grams when weighing gelatin sheets as you do not want to overdo the gelatin, and grams are more precise than any other measurements
– 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
– 2 Tablespoons liqueur like Grand Marnier, Bourbon, Calvados or other of your choice – my preference, and the one I think makes this dessert even more divine, is St. Germain, an elderflower cordial, which you should be able to find in most grocery stores
For the caramel sauce:
– 125 gr. (4.4 oz) sugar
– 2 Tablespoons water
For the strawberry sauce:
– 500 gr. (just over 1 lb.) fresh strawberries + extra for decoration
– 100 gr. (3.5 oz.) powder sugar – if the strawberries are super sweet the way the should be, you can cut the sugar in half
For the caramel version you will also need: 10-13 stainless steel ramekins, or 1 quart-size pound cake/bread baking pan (or other shape of choice).
Let’s start with the caramel.
1. Lay out the stainless steel ramekins or larger mold.
2. Make the caramel. This is easy, but you need to be careful as it can get extremely hot.
Pour the sugar and 2 Tablespoons water into a stainless steel saucepan, place it on the stove at medium heat and let the sugar dissolve, then raise the heat and let it cook until it turns a golden color of your choice. DO NOT stir, ever! I like my caramel in a nice amber color and not too dark or it will taste too burnt.
Using extreme care and oven mitts to protect your hands, pour a little liquid, hot caramel into each ramekin to cover the bottom – or all into the larger mold, also covering the bottom. If you can, try to swirl the ramekins or mold a little before the caramel hardens so it coats part of the sides. If not, don’t worry. The caramel will harden quickly, and it will also make the ramekins (or mold) hot.
Let the empty saucepan cool a little before filling it with hot water and placing it in the sink for soaking and washing.
This part has to happen first only if you are choosing to make the classic caramel version.
3. Prepare the cream. Cut the sheets of gelatin into 1-inch-wide strips and place them in a bowl with iced water to soften.
In another, larger, stainless steel saucepan, bring the cream and milk to a simmer, then add the sugar and stir to dissolve using a whisk. Add the vanilla and liqueur and stir. Gently pick up the softened gelatin with your fingers, making sure you get all the slippery pieces, and squeeze out any excess water. Add the gelatin to the hot cream and stir until dissolved and blended. Keep stirring while letting the cream mixture thicken for about a minute, then remove from heat. Using a small ladle, distribute the hot cream into the prepared ramekins or mold, filling them up as much as possible, but leaving a little space at the top so that, once ready for the refrigerator, the plastic wrap will not touch the surface of the cream.
If you are making the strawberry-sauce version: fill the empty glass jars with hot cream leaving some space at the top for the sauce layer that you will be adding later.
Allow to cool completely to room temperature, preferably on a a rack to speed up the process. Cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Panna Cotta can be made ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
4. To serve the caramel version: run a table knife gently around the edge between the ramekin and the cream all the way to the bottom to loosen, then flip the panna cotta onto dessert plates. The caramel will have liquified, turning into sauce. The longer the ramekins stay in the refrigerator, the more caramel will liquify and follow the cooked cream onto the plate. I prefer to make this dessert at least one whole day in advance.
If you have chosen to use a larger mold, you will have to turn out the dessert onto a serving plate and then slice it. I have seen it served in several ways.
For the strawberry-sauce version.
1. While the hot cream-filled jars are cooling, prepare the strawberry sauce.
Wash and carefully pat dry the strawberries, then remove the green stem and cut them into pieces. Place them in saucepan with the sugar and a splash of water (3 Tablespoons max). Gently bring to a simmer while stirring to dissolve the sugar, and immediately remove from heat.
Using an immersion blender, blend the strawberries directly in the saucepan until smooth and creamy and no lumps are left. Pass through a fine sieve into a bowl to remove most of the seeds. Keep stirring the sauce in the sieve until all of it but the seeds and a little residual pulp have passed through.
Let the sauce cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
You can also simply put the cut strawberries and sugar in a blender and skip the saucepan/simmer part, though I still recommend passing it through a fine sieve. I have made it both ways and they both work perfectly well.
2. To serve: distribute the strawberry sauce on top of the chilled cream in the jars, leaving a little room at the top. Add a freshly sliced half strawberry per jar and serve. Very easy.
Panna Cotta is very versatile. I am sure most of you have tasted it in some variation or other. If you would like to give it a lemon twist like the one my reader had tasted at Town, you could add some lemon zest in a single swirly piece to the cooking cream, and then remove it when pouring. In that case, you might want to avoid the caramel… or maybe not.
In some restaurants in Italy I have had a version called Latte in Piedi – literally: standing milk – which contains a higher proportion of milk, and is then sliced out of a large rectangle piece, then topped with a fruit sauce. I have also had some made with buttermilk, or even with goat’s milk added to regular cream.
You can play with variations and sauces and see which ones you like best. If you are like me, you will love all of them.
If you enjoyed this recipe, you might also enjoy these other desserts: