Photo: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann
I’m a huge fan of dinner parties. I like to go to them, and I love to host them. It’s a chance to gather with the people you love and share stories and all that warm and fuzzy stuff, and that’s great, but mostly it’s an opportunity to show off. If you’ve been perfecting Beef Wellington with homemade puff pastry for the last six months, then heck yeah it’s time to formally present it like it’s no big deal.
Properly fishing for compliments at your fancy dinner party (or someone else’s) requires an equally fancy dessert. For the savvy baker, a seven-layer cake, cream puffs , or a stone fruit pavlova would fit the bill. But for the baking disinclined, finding the “right” recipe means hours of searching online for “easy” recipes, with the search halting at “preheat your oven.” Well, non-bakers, search no more: Panna cotta is the best fancy no-bake dessert for your dinner party.
Panna cotta is inherently impressive. Just uttering its Italian name–panna cotta–will elicit at least one, “Ooh, what’s that?” That’s your cue to dazzle your audience. Panna cotta translates from Italian to “cooked cream,” but it’s so much more. The flavor is supremely creamy, mild, and subtly sweet, with a texture somewhere between a velvety crème brûlée and a relaxed flan. You can even add hints of flavor to this incredibly versatile dessert to help it fit the flavor profile of the meal.
As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s easy to prepare as individual servings, and since panna cotta is a molded, chilled dessert, you can make it up to 48 hours ahead of time. For the oven-phobic—hold onto your hats—the best part is that the roughly four ingredients are all cooked on the stove top. Frankly, even cooked is an overstatement; they’re warmed on the stove top, making this an excellent option for keeping your kitchen cool in the summer.
Panna cotta can be served simply, showcasing the quality of cream used. You can also add a scattering of vanilla bean, or incorporate flavors like coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, or tea. This dessert contains a small amount of gelatin to give it just enough structure to hold its shape on a plate, so when you consider flavor additions, make sure the liquid-to-gelatin ratio remains close to the same as the instructions direct.
Try my recipe for cookie dough panna cotta for a fun spin on a childhood favorite. “Milk and cookies” is as classic a pairing as “bread and butter,” and this recipe is a great way to showcase the fresh cream flavor of panna cotta while adding a bit texture. Remember that while preparing the recipe is quick, panna cotta needs four hours to set at minimum.
Photo: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann
Crumble the cookies completely. I used a small food processor but you could use your hands. Set aside.
Prepare your molds, or ramekins, by wiping a thin layer of flavorless oil inside. Just a light coating is fine, you don’t want it to pool up.
Pour half and half into a medium pot. Sprinkle gelatin over the half and half and allow it to bloom for about five minutes.
Over medium-low heat, whisk the mixture until the gelatin dissolves and you no longer see any bits of gelatin floating around. If the mixture begins to bubble around the edges, turn the heat down. You do not want to boil the mixture. According to Fine Cooking , the high heat will weaken the gelatin’s abilities to gel. After about five minutes of whisking the gelatin should be dissolved.
Turn off the heat and whisk the sugar and vanilla extract into the milk mixture. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, or for about two minutes.
Just before you pour the mixture into molds, Stir in one teaspoon of the cookie crumbs. They’ll sink a little, that’s good. Divide the panna cotta mixture into the prepared molds. Sprinkle another teaspoon of cookie crumbs across the four molds.
Allow to set in the fridge for four hours, or overnight.
Panna cotta can be served straight out of the ramekins or unmolded. If you serve it in the molds, garnish with any remaining cookie crumbs or a whole cookie. If you want to unmold the panna cotta, gently run a sharp paring knife around the edges as you tilt the mold toward you, which will allow gravity to pull the dessert gently down and away from your knife as you loosen the edge. Dip the ramekin into a shallow bowl of warm water for about 30 seconds, dry off the ramekin and slowly invert onto a plate. Be gentle and patient, the dessert will slowly release from the mold. Garnish with cookie crumbs and serve cold.