Panna Cotta

This luscious dessert has its origins in Piedmont, but is commonly found all over Italy. This easy panna cotta recipe is adapted from Paola, the chef at  La Palazzetta del Vescovo, a lovely country inn in Umbria.

Ingredients (makes 4-5 servings, recipe can be doubled)

  • 1 cup (250 ml) heavy fresh cream (whipping cream)
  • 1 cup (250 ml) milk
  • 2 heaping TB sugar (1 oz, or 28 grams)
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 sheets (4 grams) of gelatin (this is 1/7 of an oz!)


Put the gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water to soften for 10 minutes. Heat the cream and milk with the sugar in a non-reactive sauce pan, stirring occasionally so that it doesn’t burn or stick. When it just comes to a boil, remove from the heat.

Squeeze the softened gelatin sheet to remove excess water, and stir into the hot cream mixture until dissolved.

Fill a large bowl or pot with ice water, and place the pot of cream and gelatin mixture into the container of ice water. Stir frequently with a rubber spatula until cool.  When the cream begins to thicken, transfer the mixture to a pitcher and pour it into individual molds. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 3 hours until firm.  (Panna cotta may be made a day ahead of serving.)

To serve, run a thin sharp knife around the inside edge of the panna cotta to loosen. Place a dessert plate upside down on the mold then invert brusquely and hope the panna cotta comes out in one piece – if it doesn’t, disguise it with sauce.

You can make panna cotta and other dishes at La Palazzetta del Vescovo during our walking & cooking tour of Umbria.

Dessert Sauces for Panna Cotta:

Fruit sauce for panna cotta: A tart fruit sauce made with berries, or amarene (sour cherries) is an excellent contrast to the creamy panna cotta. Cook 1 ½  cups (375 ml) of  amarene in a small non-reactive pot until soft. Measure the cooked cherries and add an equal amount of sugar. Taste and if it is tto tart, add more sugar. Cook, stirring frequently so that it doesn’t burn for about 10 minutes, until it is slightly thickened – if you cook it too long it will become sour cherry jam! Cool before spooning over panna cotta.

Chocolate sauce for panna cotta: For those who simply cannot forgo dessert without chocolate, a dark chocolate sauce is also an excellent accompaniment to panna cotta. Reserve about a tablespoon of heavy cream, and heat it in a small double boiler. Add chunks of dark semi-sweet chocolate (2 oz, 50 grams) and stir until melted, thinning with a bit of milk until the consistency is as you like it. Cool before pouring over the unmolded panna cotta. Top with toasted slivered almonds.

Caramel sauce for panna cotta: If you have never made caramel before, it is easy but you must take safety precautions not to be splashed with drops of searing hot caramel. Wear oven mitts and keep a bowl of ice water nearby  for emergencies!

In a small saucepan, heat 1 ½ cups (150 ml) of water and keep warm. Fill the sink with cold water. Now, start cooking the caramel: put 2 cups (400 grams) of sugar in a deep heavy-bottomed stainless pan, and cook without stirring over low heat.  When the sugar begins to melt around the edges, drag the edges toward the center with a wooden spoon. Stir lightly as the sugar melts.  When the sugar is melted into caramel, watch it carefully so that you do not burn it. It should become dark amber, the color of an old copper penny. When the right color is reached, plunge the pot in the sink of cold water to stop the cooking. Very carefully add the hot water and a teaspoon of vanilla and stir vigorously.  If the caramel sauce clumps, put it back on a low flame to smooth out. Cool to room temperature before serving. You can store extra caramel in a jar for future desserts.

Buon appetito!