Panna Cotta Could Be Your King Of Desserts

Panna cotta, a simply unctuous combination of cream and vanilla, threatens to topple tiramisu’s long reign as the king of Italian desserts.

Literally “cooked cream,” a finished dish of panna cotta at first glance resembles Spanish flan and French creme caramel. Upon closer inspection, cooks will notice that panna cotta almost always is eggless and contains little more than cream, sugar, a touch of gelatin and some flavorings - usually vanilla or almond, sometimes a liqueur.

Despite its name, the cream in panna cotta is not really cooked at all; rather it is heated gently just to dissolve the sugar and bring out the flavors. Because of its simplicity, it’s important to use the freshest possible cream and top-notch flavorings.

Using as little gelatin as possible - just enough to unmold the dessert, but not near enough to detect its presence - also improves the success rate.

Two slightly different recipes for panna cotta are printed here. Jean Tippenhauer, pastry chef at Chicago’s Coco Pazzo, supplied the first recipe. Tippenhauer serves a large portion of the vanilla-scented cream with a light caramel sauce; we have cut the recipe in half to make four generous servings.

The second recipe, adapted from Giuliano Bugialli’s “Foods of Italy,” reserves half of the cream for whipping and folding into the cooled cream and gelatin mixture. As in a classic flan, Bugialli first coats the panna cotta molds with a bit of caramel sauce. Once unmolded, a thin layer of gold graces the top of the snow white desserts.

Panna Cotta with Caramel Sauce

1-1/2 teaspoons plain gelatin

2 tablespoons water

2-1/2 cups whipping cream

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/2 of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Caramel sauce:

1/2 cup each: granulated sugar, water

Fresh raspberries, mint sprigs, for garnish

Dissolve gelatin in 2 tablespoons water in small dish; let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.

Heat cream, milk, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla bean in a large, heavy saucepan to a simmer. Stir dissolved gelatin into cream. Cook and stir just long enough to melt the gelatin.

Transfer mixture to a stainless steel or glass bowl set in a larger bowl filled with ice. Cool, stirring occasionally, to room temperature. Remove vanilla bean.

Divide cream mixture among four 8-ounce molds or custard cups. Refrigerate, covered, for several hours or overnight.

For caramel sauce, combine granulated sugar and 1/4 cup of the water in small saucepan. Heat to boil and stir to dissolve sugar. Cover with lid and boil 1 minute. Uncover pan; boil, without stirring, until mixture turns a light brown color. Very carefully (mixture may spatter) add remaining 1/4 cup water and return to a boil. Pour into a small bowl and cool to room temperature.

To serve, run a paring knife around the edge of each mold. Invert onto serving plate and shake gently to unmold. Pour a little caramel sauce over the panna cotta and onto the plate. Garnish with raspberries and mint.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 680 calories, 56 grams fat (74 percent fat calories), 210 milligrams cholesterol, 75 milligrams sodium, 43 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams protein.

Bugialli’s Panna Cotta

2 cups whipping cream

1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon confectioners’ sugar

1 piece (2 inches) vanilla bean

1 piece (2 inches) lemon rind (colored part only)

1 tablespoon plain gelatin

1/4 cup whole milk

3 tablespoons light rum

1/2 cup plus 1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/4 cup cold water

1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Granulated sugar

Heat 1 cup of the cream, 1/2 cup of the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla bean and lemon rind in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Meanwhile, put the gelatin in a small bowl and pour the cold milk over it to soften the gelatin.

When the cream reaches a boil, remove from the heat; discard the vanilla bean and lemon rind. Add the rum and softened gelatin. Mix very well with a wooden spoon to be sure that the gelatin is completely dissolved and no grains remain. Transfer the contents to a large bowl and cool completely.

Lightly butter six 6-ounce custard cups. Heat 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar and the water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Add lemon juice; reduce heat and cook, without stirring, until mixture is a light brown color. Immediately remove from heat and carefully divide among buttered cups. Let cool.

When the cream-gelatin mixture is cooled, beat the remaining 1 cup whipping cream with the remaining 1 teaspoon confectioners’ sugar and 1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the whipped cream into the cooled cream-gelatin mixture.

Divide the mixture among the prepared custard cups. Tap them on the counter to even them out. Refrigerate until set, at least 2 hours.

Remove from the refrigerator; dip the bottoms in very hot water and unmold onto serving plates.

Yield: 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 405 calories, 30 grams fat (67 percent fat calories), 110 milligrams cholesterol, 40 milligrams sodium, 29 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams protein.

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