The Italians get full credit and my interminable gratitude for inventing some of life’s greatest pleasures: opera, the ballet, and, of course, panna cotta. I realise the last one sits in a slightly different league; but, ultimately, all three inspire rapture and nourish the soul.
Rapture, you ask? Oh yes, indeed. For I can’t think of too many desserts that have the same versatility and general likeability as a flawless panna cotta. And that’s the key thing: this Piedmontese specialty is so foolproof that flawlessness is not happenstance – it is effectively guaranteed.
I used to admire the way restaurants would present this glistering mound of cooked cream (the literal translation of panna cotta in Italian) accompanied by a coulis or reduction as sweet and unhurried as molasses. It always looked impressive and, well, professional, for lack of a better word.
And I would love observing that first spoonful, when the cutlery slit the pudding with the grace of a diver plunging into water. Because the way the panna cotta wobbled and quivered said everything about its consistency. Too much gelatin and it was a rubbery blob; too little and it was a watery mess. Yet quite invariably, what I received would be silky and creamy with just the right amount of wobble.
Little did I know then how accessible panna cotta is to the home cook. It’s so easy to achieve that the recipe should be committed to memory, poised for whipping out on a whim or when unexpected company pop by for dinner. The ingredients couldn’t be more elemental to a standard larder: milk, cream, sugar and gelatin.
For four servings, you simply cook together 250ml of cream with 250ml of milk and add 25 grams of sugar along with three gelatin leaves. Then divide into individual moulds or glasses and refrigerate. Voila. You could start preparing this dish as your guests are removing their coats and getting settled in. By the time you’ve finished your main meal, the panna cotta is chilled and ready to serve. It doesn’t get much easier.
Plus, you avoid so many food allergy land mines. There are no eggs or nuts. And it’s gluten-free. Is someone in the midst lactose intolerant? Well, panna cotta also works with soy or almond milk, though the result won’t be as creamy. Or perhaps you have strict vegetarians who don’t consume gelatin. Easy: use a vegetable-based setting agent such as agar-agar instead.
But the fun hasn’t even begun. While the most traditional version calls for vanilla bean to flavour this Italian cousin of blancmange, I’ve seen it with many different faces: coffee, white chocolate, mango, lavender… the list goes on. Then don’t forget the topping. Berry coulis is a popular choice, along with chocolate sauce. Some people dilute a bit of jam; others like plain fresh fruit with a swirl of honey. And for an adult version, any number of liquers can be poured straight on.
Panna cotta is not often the dessert that jumps out on a menu. You almost certainly know what you’re in for. Yet, at times, that comfort factor is exactly what I desire. Nothing pretentious. Nothing outrageous. Just cream cooked to perfection.
** A version of this article appeared in the magazine Qatar Happening **