I can usually predict how dinner at my Italian friends’ homes will end. There might be fresh fruit for a finish. Or there might be cheese. Or there might be fruit and cheese. But there’ll always be an apology.
“I’m sorry,” my friends will say. “We Italians don’t really make desserts.”
Untrue! Untrue! Never mind all the wonderful crostatas, those beautiful fruit tarts; cannoli; bomboloni, my favorite doughnuts; and gelato, a gift to the planet. What about tiramisu? And how about panna cotta? If Italy had given us nothing but the last two, we’d still have a lot to thank the country for.
Sadly, tiramisu (which you and I will make together at some point), with its layers of espresso-and-rum-soaked ladyfingers, mascarpone and cocoa, doesn’t get the respect it deserves, despite the fact that it’s a marvel. And panna cotta has become a dessert many think of as “restaurant-only.” Inexplicable. Foolish, too.
If you can make Jell-O, you can make panna cotta. I hate to think of them as being related, although they might be. But panna cotta is so much more delicious — and interesting.
The name means cooked cream, a translation that could set you thinking about foods for the faint and sickly. Resist! The dish is kind of a custard, kind of a pudding and kind of a wriggly jelled dessert. It is basic — almost primal in the way it satisfies — and yet elegant. Simple things can be that way.
In this recipe, the cream is, indeed, cooked, but not much. It’s scalded — only until bubbles form around the border of the pan — and then mixed with tangy buttermilk and flavored with vanilla. What makes it spoonable rather than slurpable is the addition of powdered gelatin, a much-maligned ingredient that’s actually magical. Here, it turns the liquid into something almost velvety.
This panna cotta would be fine with nothing more, but the addition of strawberries, cooked and raw, makes it even finer. For the base layer, there’s a quickly cooked jam of strawberries with a drizzle of honey. Once the berries bubble and break, a matter of minutes, you add a little balsamic — just enough to restore the sweet-acidic balance that strawberries are prized for. Also just enough to add a little mystery (one of my favorite ingredients in any dish). To keep the jam in its place, spoon it into the glasses or bowls you’re using for the dessert and pop them into the freezer while you make the panna cotta.
The berries that crown the dessert are merely cut and sugared; leave them alone until they glisten and get juicy. Then, if you like, season them with either freshly cracked black pepper or pinched-between-your-fingers pink peppercorns.
You’ve got only one thing to watch out for, and it’s easy: Make sure the gelatin is completely moistened and then completely liquefied before mixing it with the cream and the buttermilk. Pour the cold water over the gelatin, let it rest until it has expanded (or bloomed) and make sure there are no dry spots; if there are, add a bit more cold water and wait. The easiest way to liquefy the gelatin is to put it the microwave for 15 seconds.
I think of this recipe as a gateway panna cotta. Use it to learn the basics, and then andiamo! Infuse the cream with different flavors. Heat the cream with herbs (basil, thyme and lemon grass are great with berries) or spices (fresh ginger, cinnamon stick, cracked cardamom) or swap the vanilla extract for a few vanilla beans, split, their seeds and pulp scraped into the pan. Once the cream is scalded, turn off the heat, cover the pan and let it sit for about 20 minutes. Reheat the cream, strain it over the gelatin and keep going.
Of course, you can play around with the jam and fresh-fruit topping. But I hope you’ll try the berries: first, because the combination is great; and second, because May is National Strawberry Month, and who doesn’t love a celebration?
Photograph by Scott Suchman. This story appeared originally in my Everyday Dorie column in the Washington Post.