serves 4 (6 at a stretch, but who wants to stretch?)
Panna cotta, which literally means ‘cooked cream’, is not in fact cooked. Cream, perhaps with a little added milk, is gently warmed with sugar and often a vanilla pod, mixed with softened gelatine, then moulded and chilled. The resulting pudding is a delicate set cream turned out on a plate, and looks like a smooth, milky-white sandcastle, which – and apparently this is the key – quivers and wobbles like a woman’s breast.
That wobble means that the panna cotta is softly set. It should tremble as you bring it to the table, and your spoon should sink easily into the milky-white mound. The texture should be soft, smooth, silky and untroubled. The taste should be simple and clean, delicate and dairy, of cream sweetened with sugar and flavoured with real vanilla.
For such a simple pudding, there’s a lot of panna cotta advice around and, as with almost all Italian culinary wisdom, even the simplest of recipes comes with the obligatory suggestion: practice. So it was with the advice a friend gave me while we leaned against the bar in Barberini one grey Wednesday afternoon. When an Italian shares a recipe with you it’s likely to be dotted with variables and gestures that suggest ‘some’ or ‘to taste’ or, bewilderingly, ‘enough’. This is because they know and understand that ingredients, whether tomatoes, potatoes, butter, flour, cream or vanilla, vary from kitchen to kitchen, from place to place, from season to season; that what may seem sweet to one person is not to another; that gelatine can
be unpredictable; that wobbles are personal.
With the spirit of Italian culinary wisdom in mind, and working on the principle that panna cotta, once made, is something you’ll probably want to make again and again, I suggest you treat the recipe below as a template. I use panna fresca, which is technically single cream but seems a little richer, so you might like to experiment with both single and double cream, or even a mixture. My friend was vague about sugar, making a tipping gesture when it came to telling me the quantity, which was charming but not very specific. A bit of trial and error ensued. I err on the not-so-sweet side and find that 80 g is about right. Vanilla? I like it, you might not; if I didn’t have the real thing I wouldn’t bother with vanilla essence, though. Gelatine is pesky stuff. You need enough to set your cream to the requisite quiver, but not so much as to seize it into the consistency of a car tyre. I do hope you can find gelatine leaves; the powder is a pest and agar agar is just odd. You need 3 leaves in my book.
Even though panna cotta looks very pretty served in a glass with a layer of fruit sauce or syrup poured on top, I like my mine turned out on a plate in all its milky-white, wobbly glory. I am happy to eat it just so, but I really like panna cotta with some fruit, or even better, a
spoonful of fruit sauce. The idea of caramel or chocolate sauce might
seem appealing, but I think it all ends up being too much. Panna
cotta pairs well with sharp, edgy, acidic fruit, such as sour cherries, blackberries, cranberries, blackcurrants or redcurrants, all of which, cooked briefly or simply mashed with a tiny bit of sugar, offset and accentuate the creaminess and look wonderfully dramatic, like red lips and pale skin, next to your innocent white pudding.
You’ll need 4 metal panna cotta moulds or ramekins (which need to be lightly greased with vegetable oil). If you don’t want to turn them out, use 4 glasses.
Pour the cream into a pan. Use a small sharp knife to split the vanilla pod lengthways, then scrape the seeds out. Add the seeds and beans to the pan. Warm the cream gently over a low heat, but do not allow it to boil. Remove from the heat and set aside for
10 minutes so that the vanilla infuses into the milk.
Soak the gelatine leaves in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes, or until they are very soft and floppy.
Remove the vanilla pod from the pan. Return the pan to a low heat, add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Squeeze the water out from the gelatine leaves and add it to the pan. Stir until the gelatine has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat.
Divide the mixture between your pots or glasses and chill in the fridge for at least 3 hours. To turn them out, dip the base of the pots briefly in boiling water, then invert on to serving plates. Serve just so, or with a spoonful of sharp fruit sauce or coulis.