Vanilla panna cotta is a sweet, cold custard from Northern Italy. It is traditionally made from cream, sugar and milk, with vanilla added to accent the cream. The entire cream-and-sugar mixture is eventually added to gelatin and the pudding formed in a small dish. The finished vanilla panna cotta can be served with fruit on top or drizzles of chocolate.
The region where panna cotta is thought to have originated in Northern Italy, an area known as Piedmont, has declared panna cotta as one of its official regional cuisines. It is described as being a very delicate dish, and many chefs agree. Most notably, the texture of the custard when cooked correctly is supposed to look like it can barely support its shape, although it does.
Vanilla panna cotta is one of many variations that have developed over time. The addition of vanilla to the cream is thought to have a complementary effect, especially when topped with pears or strawberries. Some recipes call for the use of fresh vanilla beans during cooking while others use pure vanilla extract.
There are numerous variations on the basic vanilla panna cotta recipe. Some of them were developed to try to cut down on the cream content in the dessert. Instead of using all cream, a certain amount is replaced with sour cream, yogurt or half and half. This creates a lighter consistency in the finished dish but also can cause some complications when determining the amount of gelatin to add. For a sharper taste, buttermilk can be added to the cream.
The presentation of vanilla panna cotta is one of the more creative areas of making the dessert. It is normally unmolded from a ramekin-like bowl or dish into the center of a plate and then lightly covered or surrounded in a sauce. Other presentations include forming the custard in a champagne flute and serving it with whole fruit or chocolate shavings in the glass. It also can be left in the bowl or ramekin and have a caramel sauce poured over top to form a layer covering the vanilla panna cotta.
One important thing to remember about making vanilla panna cotta is not to use certain fruits, specifically acidic tropical fruits such as pineapple. These fruits contain an enzyme called bromelin. The fruits, when mixed with the panna cotta, will prevent the gelatin from becoming solid and leave the dessert as little more than a bowl full of liquid.