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Panna cotta is an Italian dessert, most popular in Northern Italy, and probably originated in the Piedmont region of the country. Its name translates to cooked cream, but it is actually not cooked that much. Milk and cream, plus sugar and flavorings are cooked together for a brief period of time, and then added to a thickening agent (most often gelatin). This simple pudding gets firmer as it cools and is usually served chilled.
The relative simplicity of the panna cotta recipe makes it a terrific dessert choice for even novice cooks. While many European custards get their firmness from adding eggs, gelatin makes panna cotta difficult to mess up, and eliminates the possibility that you will end up scrambling your eggs in hot custard mix. The only thing you need know about this dessert besides the recipe is that you’ll need to prepare the dessert in advance so it has time to chill. It’s also a good idea to purchase ramekins so that you can create individual serving sizes. The pudding can either remain in the ramekin, or be unmolded and plated.
Since the base recipe for panna cotta produces a very light taste, the dessert is often served “dressed up” with various sauces. Adding sauces made of berries, summer fruits, or even tropical fruits can be delicious. Typically you would add these after the panna cotta has achieved the desired firmness. You could even serve panna cotta with a dollop of jam if you want to keep things simple, thus creating a dessert somewhat similar to castle pudding.
There are other recipes for panna cotta that are more complex. Though vanilla is the most traditional, variations can include many additions. The dessert can be made chocolate, mixed with coconut, flavored and colored with saffron, or even forgo sugar and be turned into a savory dish. Nowhere is the subject of this dessert more completely covered than in the 2007 cookbook, Panna Cotta: Italy’s Elegant Custard Made Easy by Camilla V. Saulsbury. Her recipes include classic ones, and some unusual interpretations of the pudding, such as flavoring it with lavender or creating a butterscotch variety. Moreover, Saulsbury’s book contains numerous suggestions for savory renderings of the dish, including those made with varied vegetables and goat cheese.
You should note that if you are a vegetarian, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this Italian classic. Instead of using gelatin, you can substitute agar-agar, a seaweed derivative. This will easily give the custard the desired thickness needed, and adds little to no flavor to the dish.