Just because something is simple, doesn't mean it's easy. In fact, tiny defects are most apparent in the simplest dishes.
Panna cotta is a great example. I've never made it before, rarely even had it. Cream and milk, barley thickened with gelatin, and flavored with sugar and vanilla. That's a basic panna cotta and there is not much to it.
It's a good dish to know because it's a canvas on which you can paint any flavor you can imagine. Unlike some other "blank canvas" dishes, it is complete and splendid as is.
If you get it right!
Happy news for you and me: Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times did the work for us. Inspired by a perfect panna cotta he had at a restaurant, "delicately sweet, it was like a dream of cream held together by faith and just a little bit of gelatin," Parsons spent a couple of weeks deep in spreadsheets and cream matching it.
Today, my friend Butch and I planned a big food day and I had panna cotta in mind and Parsons' article in hand.
It's pretty easy. Simmer cream, milk, sugar, and a vanilla bean. Soften gelatin and add it to the cream mixture after it cools. Chill. Done.
The proportions are important. Too much cream and it's fatty. Sugar needs to be balanced. The gelatin needs to be just enough to hold it together — we want it soft, not like cream Jell-O.
Here's his recipe. I halved the recipe and made just a couple of technique changes to simplfy handling of the vanilla bean and the gelatin. The proportions were perfect.
Total time: 40 minutes, plus chilling time
2 tablespoons water
1/2 tablespoon powdered gelatin
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cups whole or 2% milk
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 (2-inch) section vanilla bean, or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Stir to distribute, and set aside to soften 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Wipe the insides of 4 (one-half-cup) ramekins with a light coating of neutral oil and set aside. Half-fill a large bowl with ice and add enough water to make an ice bath and set aside.
3. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds.
4. In a small saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar and split vanilla bean, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, and whisk in the softened gelatin and the vanilla extract, if using. Remove the bean pod from the mixture, and discard.
5. Set the saucepan in the ice bath (making sure the top of the saucepan is well above the surface of the water), and whisk until the mixture is lukewarm. Rub your fingers together: There should be no grit from undissolved sugar or gelatin.
6. Ladle the mixture into the oiled ramekins and chill at least 4 hours or overnight. (I was in a hurry and placed them in the freezer for ten minutes, then in the refrigerator for two hours.
If you're going to keep them longer than overnight, cover them with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap gently against the panna cotta to prevent a skin from forming. Be aware that preparing the panna cotta more than 24 hours in advance will result in a somewhat firmer set.
7. About 10 minutes before serving, run a thin-bladed knife around the inside of the ramekin. Dip the ramekin briefly in a bowl of hot tap water, and then carefully invert onto a serving plate. If the panna cotta doesn't unmold right away, tap the ramekin lightly on the countertop to loosen it. If it still doesn't unmold, return it to the hot water bath for another five seconds and repeat. Panna cotta can also be served without unmolding.
Each serving: 320 calories; 4 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 29 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 107 mg cholesterol; 10 grams sugar; 50 mg sodium.