The first time I had panna cotta was during a cooking class about 12 years ago. One of this country’s finest pastry chefs, Nicole Plue, was teaching the class and she captivated me with her sparkling personality, techniques and recipes. The class was just before Valentine’s Day and she had made the panna cotta in heart-shaped ramekins. I fell in love.
A few years ago, The Artist and I were having dinner at the lovely Restaurant Santi in Geyserville, just north of Healdsburg in Sonoma County. After an exceptionally fine Italian meal, we came to dessert. The moment I saw the panna cotta on the menu I ordered it. Out came an ethereal plate – the pillow of panna cotta was sitting in a small pool of mango/papaya puree. O.M.G. I nearly licked the plate clean!
All these years later and I can still vividly recall these two desserts – each unique and equally delightful. That is the power of food. It touches our souls and creates memories that can last a lifetime.
Panna cotta is a traditional Italian dessert, originating in Northern Italy, most likely in the Piedmont region. Panna cotta means cooked cream, and it is truly that simple. Combining milk and cream with a touch of sugar, simple flavorings and thickening it with gelatin produces a luscious, chilled dessert.
Panna cotta can be made with any number of flavors, but the most traditional is a simple vanilla. Today’s version uses coconut milk and white chocolate for a more decadent treat perfect for Chocolate Monday! And for those of you who are lactose-intolerant, the coconut milk makes this dessert perfect for those on dairy-free diets, vegans, vegetarians, and gluten-intolerant folks.
While some puddings can be a bit tricky for beginning cooks, panna cotta’s use of gelatin makes this nearly foolproof and easy to make. If you are vegan and want to avoid the gelatin, you can substitute agar-agar or xanthan gum. If you are lusting after the sauces in these pictures, you can serve this with a Raspberry Syrup, Blueberry Sauce, or for even more white chocolate goodness, try it with the White Chocolate Mousse (the filling for a delectable chocolate cake). Because the panna cotta and sauce would white-on-white, use brightly colored plates such as red, black or yellow to set off the beautiful dessert. The contrast would be stunning!
The Bay Area is a Mecca for talented chefs and pastry chefs. Nicole Plue is one of our superstars. After graduating from the California Culinary Academy (San Francisco), she cut her teeth in some of the City’s best restaurants including Masa’s, One Market, and Hawthorne Lane. Then she went to New York and spent several years at Eleven Madison Park and other high-end restaurants, further honing her craft.
Nicole returned to the Bay area and took over the pastry reins at Julia’s Kitchen (in the now defunct Copia, Napa), then moved over to wow us at Redd in Yountville. In 2010 she joined the team at Cyrus in Healdsburg – Napa Valley’s loss is Sonoma Valley’s gain. She was awarded the Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2010 by the James Beard Foundation, the food world’s equivalent of an Academy Award.
When you are looking for a special dessert for a party, holiday or other celebration, put panna cotta at the top of your list. It would be the perfect ending for your Mother’s Day dinner! Smooth and creamy, rich and luxurious, it is simple to make and yet makes your guests feel special. You can change it up with flavorings and sauces or simply garnish it with the freshest fruits of the season.
If you want a real indulgence, draw a hot bubble bath, pour a glass of champagne and relax with a panna cotta in hand. You will fall in love just as I did and create lifelong memories!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
I like the flavors of white chocolate and coconut together. With the hints of coconut already in this dessert (from the coconut milk), you could enhance that with a couple drops of coconut oil if you like. A little toasted coconut sprinkled over the top and you have a simple, make-ahead dessert!
Kitchen Skill: Releasing Molded Foods from Containers
As with any molded foods, if you are having trouble getting the panna cotta to release from the ramekins, you can dip the container in hot water for a few moments. Then wipe it dry before inverting it on your serving plate. If that doesn’t work, insert a very thin knife blade on one edge, breaking the seal. If nothing else works, simply leave the panna cotta in the ramekins and serve them as is!!
White Chocolate Panna Cotta
Yield: 6 (3.5 oz) servings
1 (14 oz) can coconut milk
1 (1/4 oz) envelope unflavored gelatin
2 tbsp sugar
4 oz (2/3 cup) E. Guittard white chocolate wafers (can also use milk or semisweet chocolate)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pour coconut milk into a medium saucepan; whisk until smooth. Sprinkle the gelatin over the top and let sit for a couple of minutes.
Turn the heat to medium-low and stir in the sugar and chocolate. Whisk constantly (helps keep the chocolate from burning) until the gelatin, sugar, and chocolate are dissolved and the mixture is just below a simmer (scalded). There will be small bubbles around the edges of the pan and the mixture will be steaming.
Cover and chill until set, at least 2 to 3 hours, or overnight.
You can serve these in the containers as it, or turn them out onto plates. A strawberry, raspberry, blueberry sauce or fresh seasonal fruit would be beautiful accompaniments on the plate.
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