Panna Cotta Is the Perfect Fancy-ish Dessert for the Non-Baker

Panna Cotta Is the Perfect Fancy-ish Dessert for the Non-Baker

If you’ve ever been to a nice restaurant and spied panna cotta on the menu, you can bet that the line cooks are making dessert. Why? Panna cotta is a dessert so easy that you don’t have to be a baker or dessert person to make it, and yet it exudes fancy. You can dress it up so pretty that everyone will think you know what you’re doing when you absolutely do not.

No shade to line cooks. It’s important to know your strengths! And cover up your weaknesses with sweet, vanilla-flavored cream.

What is Panna Cotta?

Panna cotta is an Italian dessert that means “cooked cream,” and that’s pretty much the jist of the recipe. Heavy cream, or a mixture of cream and milk, is heated, then flavored with sugar and vanilla and set with gelatin. It has the comforting texture of a custard, but with no eggs (and therefore no fussy tempering or separating yolks from whites).

Panna cottas are usually served unmolded onto a plate with fresh fruit or a simple fruit sauce, but to make things even easier you can serve them right in their ramekins (or glasses or small bowls or really any food safe vessel).

The Key Ingredients in Panna Cotta

At its simplest, panna cotta is cream, sugar, and gelatin, but the variations are endless. Instead of using all cream, you can use part cream and part milk, coconut milk, or even Greek yogurt or buttermilk. Instead of sugar you can use honey, maple syrup, or practically any sweetener you can think of.

Panna cotta is also a blank slate for flavoring. Vanilla is traditional, but you can flavor the cream with citrus zest, chocolate, tea leaves, fresh herbs, coffee, and more. 

How To Make Panna Cotta

To make panna cotta all you need to do is heat the cream, then whisk in sugar and bloomed gelatin and pour the mixture into ramekins to set. While it does take a few hours to set, this makes it the ideal prep-ahead dessert. In fact, you can make them up to three days ahead of time.

Our recipe has a few added steps, including steeping a vanilla bean in the cream mixture. This gives the dessert a striking vanilla flavor, but you could simplify things even more by stirring in a couple teaspoons of pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste along with the gelatin.

Tips for Making Vanilla Panna Cotta

  • Use a spoon to scrape the vanilla pod—While most recipes tell you to use a paring knife to scrape the vanilla seeds from the pod, I found that the tip of a spoon works better. It neatly and thoroughly removes the seeds without shaving off shards of the pod.
  • Disperse the vanilla seeds evenly—When chilling the panna cotta mixture in the ice bath, let it chill until it has the consistency of egg whites (not beaten egg whites). Give it a final stir to distribute the seeds before pouring it into your ramekins or cups. This will help keep the vanilla seeds suspended in the panna cotta for a beautiful speckled look, whereas otherwise they would mostly sink to the bottom.
  • Use the serving dishes you have—You do not have to unmold panna cotta–you can serve it directly in the vessels you poured the cream mixture into. This means that you can use any kind of vessel you want: lowball or rocks glasses, cocktail glasses, small bowls, etc. This makes this super simple dessert even easier.

Serving Ideas for Panna Cotta

  • Fresh fruit—Panna cotta pairs perfectly with almost any fruit, such as whole or halved berries, sliced stone fruits like plums or peaches, or tropical fruits like diced pineapple or mango. If the fruit isn’t sweet to your liking, drizzle some honey or maple syrup on top.
  • Fruit sauces—Simple fruit sauces like coulis or compotes are an easy way to dress up a plain panna cotta.
  • Jams, preserves, marmalades—If you have a jar of a favorite jam on hand, you can stir to loosen it, then spoon it over the panna cottas. Orange marmalade is my favorite because its bittersweet flavor really punches up the mild panna cotta.
  • Chocolate—For a richer dessert, top the panna cottas with chopped dark and/or white chocolate and a chocolate sauce.
  • Salted caramel—Loosen store-bought or homemade caramel by warming and whisking in some milk or heavy cream. Drizzle over the panna cottas and garnish with a pinch of flaky sea salt. 

Make Ahead

  • The cream, milk, and vanilla mixture can be heated and left to steep (refrigerated) up to 24 hours in advance. Simply reheat over medium and add sugar. Let cool slightly before whisking in the gelatin. 
  • Panna cottas can be made up to 3 days in advance. 

“Jiggly, creamy and delightfully smooth. The touch of lemon is the perfect little flavor boost that is delicious with the vanilla beans. This panna cotta is just sweet enough and doesn’t overshadow the fresh vanilla flavor.” —The Spruce Eats Test Kitchen

An unmolded vanilla panna cotta on a white plate with four fresh raspberries A Note From Our Recipe Tester

Ingredients

  • 1 vanilla bean

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream

  • 3/4 cup whole milk

  • 1/3 cup (70 grams) granulated sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon fine salt

  • 3 tablespoons cold water

  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

  • 1 tablespoon powdered gelatin (from one 1-ounce packet)

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Ingredients to make vanilla panna cotta

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

  2. Cut 1 vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a spoon. Place the seeds in a small bowl and set aside.

    A cutting board with a knife and a spoon, and a vanilla bean pod, cut in half, with vanilla seeds removed.

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

  3. Place the vanilla bean pod in a medium saucepan and add 2 cups heavy whipping cream and 3/4 cup whole milk. Heat the cream mixture over medium-low until starting to steam but not simmering, 10 to 15 minutes. 

    A pot of heavy cream, milk, and a split vanilla bean pod

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

  4. Remove from the heat and add 1/3 cup (70 grams) granulated sugar and 1/4 teaspoon fine salt. Whisk until dissolved. Let the cream mixture sit for 15 minutes. 

    A pot of warmed vanilla, cream and milk, with sugar and salt sitting on a trivet

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

  5. Meanwhile, combine 3 tablespoons cold water and 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice in a small bowl. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon powdered gelatin over the water and let stand until evenly moistened and bloomed, about 5 minutes. 

    A small bowl of bloomed gelatin

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

  6. Remove the vanilla bean pod from the warm cream mixture and discard or reserve for another use. Whisk the bloomed gelatin into the cream mixture until dissolved. 

    A whisk mixing bloomed gelatin into the pot with warmed cream and sugar

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

  7. Pour the cream mixture into a 4-cup liquid measuring cup and whisk in the reserved vanilla bean seeds. Place in a large bowl of ice. Let sit, whisking every few minutes to avoid developing a skin on top, until cool, about 30 minutes. 

    A large measuring cup with vanilla panna cotta mixture sitting in a bowl of ice, with a whisk

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

  8. Whisk the panna cotta mixture again to redistribute vanilla bean seeds. Lightly spray 6 (6-ounce) ramekins or panna cotta molds with cooking spray and pour about 1/2 cup panna cotta into each (If there are any vanilla bean seeds remaining at the bottom of the measuring cup evenly distribute them among the filled glasses or ramekins.). Cover with plastic wrap. 

    Six small ramekins filled with vanilla panna cotta

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

  9. Refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours and up to 3 days. When ready to serve, dip the bottoms of the ramekins into hot water for 5 to 10 seconds and invert onto serving plates. Alternatively, serve the panna cottas in their ramekins. 

    A plate with an individual serving of vanilla panna cotta

    The Spruce Eats / Photographer: Fred Hardy, Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley

How To Store

Store panna cottas covered with plastic wrap for up to 4 days in the refrigerator.

Feeling Adventurous? Try This:

  • Chocolate-Hazelnut—Omit the vanilla bean seeds and decrease the amount of granulated sugar to 1/4 cup (50 grams). Whisk in a few tablespoons of nutella along with the bloomed gelatin. Serve topped with chopped toasted hazelnuts and chocolate shavings.
  • Coconut—Omit the vanilla bean and swap the whole milk for coconut milk, add 1 teaspoon coconut extract and top with toasted coconut flakes and chocolate shavings.
  • Café au Lait—Omit the vanilla bean and whisk in 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder along with the bloomed gelatin.

How To Use the Leftover Vanilla Bean Pod

Vanilla beans are expensive, but they’re also very potent. Even after being used to infuse the heavy cream with rich vanilla flavor, the pod still has a lot of life left! 

  1. Rinse the pod to remove any cream residue.
  2. Pat it dry with a paper towel and leave it to dry completely at room temperature until it is so dry it breaks easily (a food dehydrator or very low oven will speed this process). 
  3. Stick the whole pod in a jar with granulated sugar and let it sit indefinitely. The pod will infuse the sugar with vanilla flavor, and you can use the sugar in all kinds of baked goods or even just your morning coffee.
  4. Alternatively, pulverize the dried pod in a spice or coffee grinder until fine, then add it to baked goods instead of vanilla, or stir it into sugar to make vanilla sugar.

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