Looking for a dessert that ticks all the boxes of unusual, beautiful and delicious? This vanilla bean panna cotta delivers all three. And although this Italian dessert’s name may sound intimidating, this delicious panna cotta recipe is surprisingly easy to make and can be made in advance.
We’re always thrilled when one of our favorite bakers, Chrysta Wilson, author of Kiss My Bundt, shares one of her magical recipes with us. Chrysta has a way of transforming seemingly difficult desserts and explaining them into something anyone could make…flawlessly!
In Kiss My Bundt, she demystified made-from-scratch cakes for the masses. (The book has consistently made the Amazon top 5 cake bestsellers since its release.) Here, she does it again with vanilla panna cotta.
What is panna cotta?
Panna cotta is a molded, chilled dessert popular throughout Italy. It is, essentially, an Italian version of pudding. When properly done, it has a smooth, seductively creamy, snuggle-up-to-your-tongue texture.
According to Wikipedia, the dessert did not appear in Italian cookbooks until the 1960s. However, there are references to this Italian pudding as a traditional dessert of the Piedmont region.
And although it is believed that some version of this dessert was served in Piedmont since the 1800s, panna cotta did not gain popularity in the United States until the 1990s.
The basic panna cotta recipe, a mixture of sweetened cream and gelatin, is essential a blank canvas for flavor. Popular flavorings include rum, coffee, and chocolate. Chrysta flavors hers with one of our favorite aphrodisiacs, vanilla.
In this recipe, she uses vanilla bean paste, which is made with real vanilla. (Some vanilla extracts are artificially flavored.)
By the way, the mere scent of vanilla is said to drive some men wild.
Vanilla bean panna cotta ingredients
- Vanilla Bean Paste
As I mentioned, this silky panna cotta recipe is flavored with a vanilla product called vanilla bean paste. It is made from combining real vanilla extract with vanilla bean powder to make a thick and fragrant paste.
If you don’t know where to find vanilla bean paste, you can order it online.
- Half and Half
Some panna cotta recipes call for both cream and whole milk. Instead, this recipe keeps it simple by using half and half, which is a blend of half milk and half cream already mixed for you.
- Powdered gelatin
The only step of this recipe that could possibly be considered tricky is dissolving the gelatin. For this recipe, you want to use powdered gelatin, not sheets.
The trick is to sprinkle the gelatin granules evenly over the half and half and let them “bloom” before you whisk it in. Make sure not to dump the gelatin into the liquid in a clump. This is how things can go wrong. Just follow the instructions below completely and you’ll have a beautiful, silky pudding.
How to serve this vanilla dessert
Chrysta recommends serving the panna cotta with strawberries, (another legendary aphrodisiac), marinated in balsamic. We also like it with a strawberry coulis and a shortbread cookie for a little crunch.
But this simple, velvety Italian pudding welcomes a wide variety of flavors from a drizzle of chocolate to a pool of blackberry sauce to something as simple as the addition of fresh berries – whatever variety is your pleasure – tossed with sugar and slivers of mint, (which is also an aphrodisiac).
Vanilla bean panna cotta in a jar?
Chrysta gives instructions for carefully removing the individual panna cottas from their cooking vessel, either a ramekin or a small glass jar.
But she also notes that if you like the rustic presentation, you can just serve this Italian vanilla pudding straight from the jar with a small spoon skipping all the fancy sauces and garnishes and getting straight to the heart of this craving-worthy dessert.
Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta
- 4 1/2 cup half and half
- 1 1/2 tbsp powdered gelatin
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla bean paste
- pinch salt
- 6 jars or ramekins
- paper towels
- cooking spray or melted butter
- 1 2-quart saucepan
- large bowl
- thin knife
- Lightly grease the ramekins: Spray the ramekins with cooking spray or melted butter, then use a paper towel to wipe out most of the oil, leaving only a light residue. This will help the panna cotta release if that’s how you choose to serve the dessert. If you’ll serve the dessert in the jars, then you don’t need to grease the jars.
- Bloom the gelatin: Pour the half and half into the saucepan and sprinkle the powdered gelatin evenly over top. Let soften for 5 minutes or until the surface of the milk is wrinkled and the gelatin grains look wet and slightly dissolved.
- Dissolve the gelatin over low heat: Set the saucepan over low heat and warm the milk gently, stirring or whisking frequently. The milk should never boil or simmer. If the mixture starts to steam, remove the pot from the stove and let it cool down. Milk should be hot, but not boiling. Gelatin melts at body temperature, so you don't need the half and half to boil to melt the gelatin.
- Check to make sure the gelatin is dissolved: The mixture should be smooth. Either touch the mixture and rub half and half between your fingers to see if it’s gritty, or dip a spoon in the half and half to see if you can detect grains/grit in the half and half.
- Dissolve the sugar: Stir the sugar into the half and half and continue warming until it dissolves. It should take about 3-5 minutes to dissolve the sugar. Remember not to boil the mixture, as it will break down the “gelling” ability of the gelatin.
- Whisk in vanilla and the salt: Remove the saucepan from the heat. Whisk in the vanilla bean paste and the salt.
- Pour half and half mixture into the ramekins or jars and chill: Divide the mixture evenly between the prepared ramekins or jars and put in the refrigerator to chill.
- It will take about 4 hours to set if you will invert the panna cotta. If you’ll serve from the jars, you only need to set the mixture for about 2 hours. They can be chilled over night.
- To serve “plated”, here’s what you to Fill a large bowl with warm water. Wipe a dessert plate with a damp paper towel. To release the panna cotta edge from the cup, run a thin knife carefully around the sides of a ramekin. Dip the ramekin in the warm water up to its rim, and hold it there for about 5 seconds.
- Invert the ramekin over the plate and shake gently to help the panna cotta fall out. It should fall out on the plate easily. (If it does not, return to the warm water bath in increments of 2 seconds.) Reposition on the plate if desired—because you wet the plate, it should be easy. Serve immediately,
- Or, serve in a clear jar! You can serve the panna cotta in jar for a rustic treat, topped with macerated strawberries.
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