Every cook should have panna cotta in his or her bag of tricks. It's understated but delightfully creamy, and it looks gorgeous on the plate. It takes only minutes to prep (although the taste and texture suggest much greater effort), and once it has had time to set, panna cotta can be pulled out of the fridge and served instantly, making it the perfect dinner party finish. Best of all, it's completely versatile, pairing well with fruit sauces from any season, as well as chocolate, caramel, and even balsamic vinegar.
This Italian dessert, which literally translates to "cooked cream", is made by gently heating a mixture of cream, sugar, and flavorings (optional), dissolving gelatin into them, and allowing the mixture to set until firm. It's easy to add flavor to panna cotta by infusing the cream with herbs or spices, finishing it with buttermilk instead of milk or cream, or using alternate sweeteners like honey or brown sugar.
There are a few small tricks that you can employ to ensure that your panna cotta is absolutely perfect. By properly blooming/hydrating the gelatin, dissolving it at the proper temperature, straining the mixture before it sets, and (if you choose to do so) carefully unmolding to serve, you can be sure that your panna cotta is a success.
For me, panna cotta is a blank canvas on which to paint flavor. In the summer, I often make buttermilk panna cotta, because the tangy flavor of buttermilk pairs perfectly with summer berries. In the winter I might opt for brown sugar panna cotta with an apple compote. No matter what I choose, it's always an easy crowd pleaser.
Click through the slideshow for step-by-step directions and lots of helpful tips to ensure that you get amazing results. Then check out my recipe for buttermilk panna cotta.