The luscious, delicate panna cotta is the 21st century version of crème brûlée and is a classic dessert that offers endless flavor possibilities and opportunities. Tracing its roots to the Piedmont region of Italy (and creamy counterparts in Greece, France, and England), this simple, silky treat has become a go-to dessert for chefs. It has the appearance of a laborious dessert, yet it’s actually quite easy to prepare – and a clever way to boost checks.
Panna cotta’s elegant simplicity makes it an ideal dessert to menu, as it’s not difficult to execute, and its adaptability to almost any flavor profile entices diners. It also has a healthy halo among customers due to its petite size, making it a perfect dessert to tempt diners into something sweet to end their meal. This creamy treat is familiar enough to customers yet still an exciting opportunity to push the flavor envelope that will set your dessert menu apart from the competition. Once you master a basic recipe, you can customize it into a signature dessert that reflects your restaurant’s culinary philosophy.
Panna cotta translates to “cooked cream,” which is an apt description of how it’s prepared. The base recipe is essentially heavy cream or milk, sugar, and gelatin. Gelatin is bloomed (or softened) in water, then heavy cream or milk is heated with sugar. The bloomed gelatin is then added to the cream mixture and poured into molds. Once it’s set after chilling, the panna cotta is ready to take on your sauces, compotes, and garnishes. A buttermilk panna cotta makes a perfect base for garnishes such as strawberry crumble, rhubarb compote, or cinnamon-caramel sauce. Be sure to take a look at our recipe for Buttermilk Panna Cotta.
A blank canvas that you can make your own, panna cotta is equally welcoming to savory flavor combinations such as beet and goat cheese, and whimsical pairings such as rosemary and grapefruit. Use it as a platform for showcasing bold flavor pairings that aren’t typically found in sweet applications such as sweet corn, bacon, and maple syrup. Liquid ingredients from coffee and tea to adult beverages such as rum and bourbon can also be incorporated. More decadent items, such as dark chocolate, can offer a nice contrast to the pure, clean flavor of panna cotta.
Panna cotta is also excellent for showcasing the seasons. In early summer, the bounty of fresh berries presents many delicious opportunities such as house-made blueberry compote or fresh strawberries with locally harvested honey. Later in the summer, cherries or peaches can be transformed into flavorful syrups or featured simply atop the dessert. In the fall, apples and pumpkins bring a comforting warmth to the dish. When winter arrives, citrus and herbs offer a bright respite from the cold. The possibilities are endless.
Panna cotta boasts several benefits that make it a no-brainer for inclusion in any dessert program, especially if you don’t have a pastry chef on staff . It can be worked into your morning prep and be ready for dinner service. It’s also an incredibly cost-effective dessert; other than gelatin, you don’t need any special ingredients since the main components are dairy and sugar, which are almost always on-hand. And when properly executed, this dessert is a food cost percentage enhancer and profit driver. It’s an excellent vehicle to utilize whatever bits of sweet crumbs, fillings, and scraps you may have, an easy way to cross-utilize ingredients, reduce waste and have high impact.
While it typically calls for gelatin, which is an animal protein, panna cotta is easily adaptable to the dietary needs and preferences of today’s health-conscious guests. Instead of gelatin, try agar-agar, a plant-based gelling alternative, as a substitution. Dairy-free milks such as almond and coconut can be used in place of the heavy cream or milk. And panna cotta is inherently gluten-free, ready to please those who have eliminated gluten from their diet.
Adding panna cotta to your dessert lineup is a recipe for success. No matter what flavors and textures you feature, executing this traditional, elegant treat will refine your restaurant’s reputation, set you apart from the competition, and create a memorable finale.
How to Bloom Gelatin
Gelatin, which is derived from the animal protein collagen, is one of the most commonly used thickeners; however, many get intimidated and don’t know how to work with this essential ingredient. By mastering the technique, you can confidently add gelatin to your dessert arsenal.Gelatin is available in two forms: granulated and sheet (leaf). No matter which you use, both are utilized essentially the same way. First, it’s bloomed, or softened, in a cold liquid and then dissolved in a hot (not boiling) liquid before being added to any application.Granulated gelatin is available in bulk or envelopes. The initial softening in a cold liquid is necessary to separate the molecules so they don’t clump together when added to a liquid; make sure to sprinkle it evenly over the surface of the liquid or it will not bloom properly. If there’s too much water, the gelatin will be diluted and the consistency too loose.
Sheet or leaf gelatin must be separated and soaked in ice water (about 1 cup of water per sheet) until soft which takes a few minutes. The sheets are then removed from the liquid, and squeezed of excess moisture. The bloomed (softened) gelatin sheets are then stirred into a hot liquid and dissolved. Sheet and granulated gelatin can be used interchangeably. If using sheets instead of granulated, typically four sheets equal one .25-ounce envelope granulated (or 1 tablespoon).
While sheet gelatin is more expensive, it’s worth the extra cost. It’s easier to store, measure, bloom, and melt. It is also flavorless and colorless, resulting in more transparent gelatin with a pure flavor. Sheet gelatin is also easier to work with since the leaves just need to be counted out versus weighing granules.
Working with gelatin is nothing to be afraid of. With knowledge of the fundamentals, proper techniques, and a little practice, you can gain confidence and master the art of this essential, intricate ingredient