Two summers ago, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and got to taste and cook some of the best food I have ever had in my life.
The first dessert we ate while in Italy was a creamy, pudding-like sweat treat, otherwise known as panna cotta. I had never had panna cotta before, but I read about it in one of my many Italian travel books; if it was mentioned in one of those books, it has to be good.
No one at the table was quite sure what it was. We all stared at the jiggly pudding/custard thing sitting on a plate in front of us. Little speckled dots were scattered throughout the dessert, so I knew it was vanilla bean. Our tour guide told us this was one of the most loved desserts in Italy, so we all scooped out a hunk of the panna cotta and took our first bite at the same time.
Each person's face went from curious and uncertain to died-and-gone-to-heaven. It was sweet, creamy and simply delicious.
Here is how you can make your own panna cotta at home to bring a little bit of Italy to your kitchen.
All you need to make this extremely simple dessert is heavy cream, sugar, vanilla extract, gelatin and water. That's it. You only have to actively prepare the dessert for a short amount of time; the majority of the preparation is in the refrigerator, so patience is definitely a necessity with this dish.
First, prepare the gelatin and water mixture by sprinkling two packets of powdered gelatin over six tablespoons of cold water in a medium or large bowl. Sit the bowl of water over ice to keep it cold if you have to. If you don't have packets of powdered gelatin, then use four and a half teaspoons of powdered gelatin. Let the gelatin sit on the water (do not stir) for about five to ten minutes. You want the gelatin to firm up with the water.
While the gelatin forms, heat four cups of heavy cream in a saucepan with 1/2 cup of granulated sugar. Stir the cream and sugar together until the sugar dissolves, then remove the saucepan from the heat so you don't burn the mixture. Stir in two teaspoons of vanilla extract, then pour the cream over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is gone.
Now, pour the panna cotta mixture into eight slightly oiled/greased glasses, plastic cups, custard cups, or anything that will make it easy to remove the panna cotta without messing up the shape.
Stick the cups into the refrigerator for at least two hours. After the panna cotta have chilled and are set, run a knife around the edges of each cup and place each panna cotta on a plate.
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You can serve the panna cotta with chocolate sauce, berries, a dusting of cocoa powder or anything you'd like to top the vanilla treats with.
If you would like a different flavor to the panna cotta, add ground coffee or espresso for a coffee flavor, cocoa powder for a chocolate flavor or lemon juice instead of water when you make the gelatin for a lemon flavor.