Panna cotta is the world’s easiest dessert. Okay, maybe not the world’s easiest dessert because that would be buying a pint of Jeni’s ice cream and calling it a night, but panna cotta is a close second. Literally translating to ‘cooked cream’, this Italian specialty is a favorite of pastry chefs and home cooks alike because it only requires a handful of ingredients, can be made in advance, and is incredibly versatile.
Now this doesn’t mean that I haven’t screwed it up. Once you’ve had an entire pan of panna cotta turn to a stiff, wobbly mass that will bounce off your spoon, you know that there are still some tricks to learn. I’ve followed about five or six different versions and found that the key is getting the right gelatin to liquid ratio. You want the panna cotta to hold on the plate with ease but gently give way to your spoon and be as smooth as silk. From my recipe testing, that ratio goes from about 1/2 tsp. to 3/4 tsp per cup of liquid. Add anything over 3/4 tsp. of gelatin and the entire dessert goes from soft wiggle to stiff jiggle. Add anything less and you’ve got a puddle of cream sitting on a plate. No good at all, my friends.
With this particular panna cotta, I wanted something with a bit of tang, so I started with a buttermilk panna cotta recipe from Bon Appetit and modified it to include some gorgeous fresh peaches tossed with basil and honey. The herbal, sweet peaches were a perfect pair for the tart buttermilk and it made for a light, refreshing dessert. Give the recipe below a taste test and then try using alternative flavorings and extracts- perhaps a vanilla bean in the cream and a cherry compote on top, or a lemon-blueberry sauce instead. Steep the cream with herbs or spices and mix and match with different fresh fruits, jams, nuts or chocolate. There are tons of opportunities for experimentation and I’m sure you’ll have no problem finding some taste testers to make sure you get it just right.
Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Peaches, Honey, & Basil (modified from Bon Appetit)
3 Tbls. water
2 tsp. unflavored gelatin
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups buttermilk
3-4 large yellow or white peaches
Handful of basil (9-10 leaves)
1-2 Tbls. clover honey
Finely chop basil and slice peaches. Toss both together with the honey and set aside (the honey will bring out the juices and provide a nice sauce). Pour 3 Tbls. of water into a small bowl and sprinkle gelatin over the top, letting sit for ten minutes until it softens. Line 4-6 ramekins (or jam jars, bowls, teacups etc.) with a mild flavored oil and set aside.
Heat cream and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Increase to medium high until bubbles start to form and the mixture just comes to a low boil. Whisk softened gelatin into the cream and sugar, and remove from heat. Place a trivet or dish cloth down and continue to stir the mixture often as it cools to lukewarm. Whisk in buttermilk and pour into the individual cups. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3-5 hours.
Using a flexible small knife, run the blade along the edge of the cups, and place a plate on top and carefully invert. If you have trouble unmolding the ramekins, you can submerge the bottom half of the ramekin in a bowl of hot water to loosen the panna cotta before inverting. Top with peach mixture and serve. If using a jam jar or teacup, simply place on the plate and top with the peach mixture.