Friday, June 21, 2013

Italy Again

by Sheila Connolly

I'd love to write a post about gelato.  I adore gelato, and I made of point of trying as many new kinds as I could this past month.  Green apple gelato is lovely, as is melon (limone—meh).  Nociolla (hazelnut) still reigns supreme.

I took many, many pictures of gelateria, wherever I found them, which was basically everywhere.  But, alas, I will not try to make my own gelato.  I'm sure it's possible, but I'd rather let the experts do it and cherish the memories.

But! At the Tuscan villa where we stayed for the first part of our trip, I met my first panna cotta.

I've heard the term before, but if I ever looked at a recipe, I was probably put off because it includes gelatin.  I don't do gelatin.  I know, it's kind of odd since I grew up with Jell-O, in all its glory. (And Junket Rennet Custard, which still makes me gag—what was up with that?) I guess I'd have to say that when I hear "gelatin" I think of chewy rubbery glop.

Luckily the dessert that appeared before us at the villa did not have a name attached.  It was a pure white half-sphere, garnished with fresh berries.  It was light and airy and sweet, the just the right size to finish the meal.  It was only after everyone had inhaled it that the term was whispered, ah panna cotta…

It's easy to make.  It matches well with everything—fruit, chocolate, caramel.  And it can be made ahead of time if you're entertaining, and you can dress it up to look pretty.  It may be the perfect dessert, particularly in summer.  After gelato, of course.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

1 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin*
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla

In a small bowl, dissolve the gelatin in 1 1/2 Tblsp water (room temperature).  Let it stand until the gelatin softens (it will swell up as it absorbs the water), a few minutes.

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the cream and the sugar.  Stir over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture barely begins to simmer (do not boil!).  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the gelatin.  Let the mixture cool, stirring occasionally, until it is just warm.  Stir in the buttermilk and the vanilla.  Pour into six half-cup ramekins or molds (note:  the size of the container is not critical, nor is the material, although it is easier to unmold them from a metal mold).

Cover and refrigerate until set, at least four hours.  Longer, even overnight, won't hurt.

I was experimenting with different molds

When you're ready to serve, run a sharp thin knife around the edges of the molds and invert them over a plate (in a perfect world they will pop out neatly).  Garnish with whatever you like.

*I found this lovely little measuring device at the book/cookware story Salt & Pepper, recently located in Occaquan VA, now in National Harbor MD (near Alexandria VA).  It will measure in any number of units, wet or dry, and it's convenient for odd amounts.  For example, the gelatin required for this dish was more than one packet but less than two, but I had the answer in hand!


  1. Lovely to hear about you trip, Sheila, and I'm with you on the Italian gelato--heaven on a spoon. Such pretty pics, esp. that last one, with your flower-molded panna cotta on the hand-painted plate. (If that were a star, methinks you'd be set to impress for a July 4th dinner party.) Cheers and thx for sharing your memories, your photos, and the recipe!

    ~ Cleo

  2. I, too have been put off by anything that requires gelatin. But after going to a cooking school demo where they made a chocolate hazelnut panna cotta, I was willing to try. It really is pretty simple and quite delicious.

  3. Darn! You're a hard act to follow!

    Lovely presentation, Sheila. Maybe I'll conquer my fear of gelatin. Worth it.

  4. Have you ever noticed that panna cotta is the default dessert on all the cooking competition shows? Every single time!

    This looks and sounds wonderful, Sheila. I'm so glad you shared. Especially the buttermilk recipe. I was looking at one with 4 cups of cream! Eeeek!