Panna cotta is one of those foods that is always better tasted than explained. The literal translation of this popular Italian dessert is 'cooked cream'. Not so appealing, right? The standard description of panna cotta doesn't fare much better — cream and sugar thickened with gelatin. Creamy Jello? Enough said!
But what this dessert lacks in descriptive appeal, it most definitely makes up for in flavor. This is a prime example of a product being so much more than just the sum of its parts. Most panna cottas contain a short list of ingredients and take almost no time to prepare, but when done right, the result is a luscious, velvety dessert with a light, pudding-like consistency.
I tried my first, and what I thought would be my last, panna cotta in Italy, years ago. It was presented alone on a clear, glass plate. At first glance, it was obvious that the dessert had been unmolded from one of those disposable, aluminum dessert cups — not only did the imprint from the pleats of the mold vertically cascade down the sides of my panna cotta, but the writing from the bottom of the cup had also been embossed onto what was now the top of my dessert. I first gently poked it with my spoon, to find it only slightly yield as one rubbery mass, and then immediately spring back to where it had started. My first bite was chewy and more reminiscent of calimari, than pudding. My second, and final bite, was like gnawing a white, opaque SuperBall, and about as flavorful.
I returned from Italy understanding why it was that I had never tried panna cotta before and why I would never try it again. But a few years later, I had a total change of heart. I was in New York City, dining at Gramercy Tavern with a group of friends, and we had decided to order some desserts to share. When a few people insisted upon the buttermilk panna cotta with huckleberries, I reluctantly agreed, but was ultimately really glad that they had ordered it. This panna cotta sat low on the plate and jiggled wildly, seemingly on the verge of collapsing into a gush of white liquid. I slid a bite of it onto my spoon and swiftly lifted it to my mouth. It was cool and creamy and dissolved on my tongue, slipping down my throat, before I had time to exhale. The flavor was delicately sweet with the subtle, tart zing of the buttermilk hitting at the end. The accompanying huckleberries, deep in color and beautifully fragrant, were the perfect balance to the tanginess of the panna cotta.
Today, panna cotta is one of my favorite desserts. I find that its simple, neutral flavor lends itself to numerous variations. Sometimes I like to fold something into the mixture, like lemon zest, melted chocolate or pureed fruit, before it is put into the refrigerator to set. At other times, I like to let the panna cotta stand on its own, and simply accent it with fresh or poached fruit, toasted nuts or a melted chocolate drizzle.
The key to making a great panna cotta lies with getting the consistency right and this entirely depends on the amount of gelatin used — the less the better. Typically, I like to slightly decrease the amount of gelatin called for in most recipes to ensure that I never end up with a rubbery, chewy blob like the one I had in Italy.