I adore panna cotta. Silky, and creamy, with a scent halo of almonds or vanilla. Or better yet both. Oh, it's the light and perfect way to end a meal. What I didn't know when we lived in Italy is how effortless it is to make. Basically, it's just milk, cream, gelatin and flavorings. Some people pour it into buttered ramekins and then before serving, place the ramekin in warm water, run a knife between the ramekin and the panna cotta, and slide the glistening mound onto a plate. It kind of looks like burrata. I like it better served in little glass jars or wine glasses. My favorite restaurant, La Cantina, serves its saffron panna cotta in wine glasses with a jot of whipped cream and it feels luxurious. If you serve it in the glass, you can make it the morning of a party, and then you don't have to fuss with dessert while guests are milling about.
You can use all sorts of toppings for panna cotta. Some people like some drops of melted chocolate, or a few soft berries. I like to make a sauce of crushed fruit or juice. Think of it like a really runny jam. In fact, if you make jam that doesn't set completely, this would be a great use for it! I think tart flavors serve as an excellent counter-note to the sweet cream, but I know others who prefer a sweet sauce on their panna cotta.
serves 8 if you use wee jars, which I prefer.
4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
2 cups whole milk
a scant cup of confectioner's sugar (I prefer my panna cotta more creamy tasting than sweet, so I sometimes do as little as 3/4 of a cup. Adjust the sugar to your taste)
2 cups best quality cream (local if you can get it)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over a quarter cup of the milk. Stir well to combine. Leave aside for a few minutes to let the gelatin absorb the milk.
In a saucepan, heat remaining milk, cream, and sugar. Over medium heat, whisk the sugar into the milk and cream until it's incorporated. Let it just come to a boil and then immediately take it off of the heat.
Add softened gelatin and the extracts, whisk to completely blend the gelatin into the liquid.
Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer, into a large measuring cup or other implement that can neatly pour. You may need to do this in stages. Now pour the panna cotta into into your jars or glasses.
Place jars in a tray or pan to make them easy to move to refrigerator. Chill until set, at least four hours. If you'll have them chilling longer than that, cover them with plastic wrap so that they don't take on refrigerator odors. Feel free to make these the evening before serving.
If you'll be using a sauce, pour it on when the sauce is room temperature and the panna cotta is set.
Serve with little chocolate butter cookies or crystallized orange peel, plus espresso and/or an after dinner liquor, like bitters or limoncello.
Blood Orange Sauce
Combine one cup of freshly squeezed blood orange juice (with pulp) and 4 tablespoons of sugar (I like vanilla sugar to highlight the cream's vanilla notes, but that's not necessary). Boil vigorously until the sauce is reduced a third to a half and takes on a syrupy appearance. You can always stop boiling, let it come to room temperature, and see if it's the right consistency. If it's too loose, boil some more.
When the panna cotta is firm, and the sauce is room temperature, spoon the sauce over the cream.