Panna Cotta Perfection

Panna Cotta. Photo by Anastasia Murphy
Panna Cotta served at Twelve 28 Kitchen. Photo by Anastasia Murphy

It’s a dessert much like a blank canvas. Panna cotta, which translates to cooked cream, is a mainstay among menus of Italian restaurants, and the variations in which it’s served are plentiful. 

In its most basic form, panna cotta is a blend of sugar and cream. The milky white substance has a slight jiggle to it, thanks to the gelatin involved. Prepared in a mold, the dessert often appears domed or ovular. From this simple state, many makers of the panna cotta choose to add to it a coulis of berries, chocolate, or a mix of both to enhance the mild flavor.

Panna cotta is sometimes referred to as a custard, however, true custard uses egg yolks as a thickening agent. In this eggless treat, sugar is dissolved in warm cream. The cream might be infused with flavors by adding rum, coffee, or vanilla. Gelatin is dissolved in a cold liquid, then added to the warm cream mixture before being poured into molds and allowed to set. Some recipes call for pouring caramel in the bottom of the molds. Once it has solidified, the mold is turned out on a plate and shaped. 

Though the dessert’s origin story is somewhat convoluted, many historians agree it originated in Piedmont, a region of Italy that borders Switzerland and France. Piedmont included panna cotta in its 2001 list of traditional food products of the region. First appearances of the dessert likely occurred much earlier, but its first debut in cookbooks transpired in the 1960s. 

West Coast Cooking author Greg Atkinson writes that the panna cotta, riding the coattails, perhaps, of the crème brûlée, started being served on American plates in the 1990s. It realized a natural ascent in popularity in the States, where Jell-O was already a favorite ingredient in everything from dessert to ham salad. 

The panna cotta at Trattoria da Cesare al Casaletto in Rome is hailed as one of the world’s most exemplary renditions of the classic dessert. Served up simply or bathed in a rich, dark caramelized cream, panna cotta is customizable and can even include creamy cheeses like a mild goat cheese and cream cheese. Whether it’s enjoyed on a plate at the restaurant most renowned for it on the globe or in the comfort of home, panna cotta is a simple indulgence for one.