I’ve lately spent a good chunk of my time surrounded by spreadsheets, crumpled paper packets, cartons of dairy products and dirty ramekins. Josef Centeno has a lot to answer for.
I recently stopped in at his Baco Mercat restaurant in Los Angeles for a lunch that ended with one of the best panna cottas I’ve ever had. You know what I mean: Delicately sweet, it was like a dream of cream held together by faith and just a little bit of gelatin.
It struck me – how long had it been since I’d had panna cotta? A few years ago, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing it. Then, just as suddenly, it went away. It makes no sense. A good panna cotta is as good as dessert gets. Vowing I would never again leave my panna cotta cravings to the whims of restaurant fashion, I determined to master the dish.
How hard could that be? There’s not a lot to a panna cotta recipe. It’s just dairy, sweetened and bound with gelatin. A bit of vanilla for flavor. That’s basically it. Why, then, are some of them so wonderful and others so blah?
That’s where the spreadsheet came in. Never underestimate the lengths a food geek will go to in order to master a simple dish. I analyzed a dozen recipes for panna cotta for three main attributes: the percentage of butterfat, the amount of gelatin and the sweetness.
The reason for the gelatin is obvious – a perfect panna cotta should have just enough that it seems the cream is barely holding together. It quivers when you touch it. When there’s too much gelatin, the custard feels stiff and cheesy. Too little and, well, you’ve got a puddle on the plate when you unmold it.
Breaking the recipes into pieces, I found ratios of gelatin to dairy ranging from ½ teaspoon to almost 3 teaspoons per cup. After a day in the kitchen experimenting with various amounts, I found the best consistency was at the shaky end of the spectrum – ¾ teaspoon per cup.
The butterfat takes a little explaining. It’s not a calorie thing, but I find too much of it leaves your mouth feeling coated and thick; the ideal panna cotta tastes light and clean.
Fortunately, analyzing butterfat doesn’t require sending it off to a lab. You can simply average the percentage of butterfat in the various dairy components. Heavy cream is 36 percent, half-and-half is 12 percent and whole milk is 3.25 percent. Therefore, a recipe that calls for a cup of half-and-half and 2 cups of cream will have a butterfat percentage of 28 percent.
I tested dairy mixes ranging from 34 percent to 18 percent (resisting the urge to completely geek out on this, I did it in 5 percent intervals. If you want to dial it in tighter, you’re on your own). Until you get toward the lowest end of that spectrum, the less butterfat the better – though when I tasted the 23 percent next to the 18 percent, I did find that the slightly higher fat content carried the flavor better while still tasting fresh.
Sweetness was relatively easy to figure. I did batches ranging from ¼ to ½ cup sugar, stepping up by the tablespoon. I was looking for a panna cotta that was definitely sweetened but not sweet, if you know what I mean. Again, light and clean. Five tablespoons was perfect.
So, 2½ cups of cream and 1½ cups of whole milk, plus 5 tablespoons of sugar, set with 1 tablespoon of gelatin. I’d cracked the code!
What’s really remarkable, though, is that a dish so delicious can be made so quickly and easily. Bring the cream and sugar to a simmer, stir in the gelatin, whisk to room temperature and pour into ramekins. It takes about 20 minutes before chilling.
The only thing easier would be going to a restaurant. But when you buy panna cotta, you’ve got dessert for a day; when you figure out how to make it, you’ve got dessert for life.
TRICKS FOR PERFECT PANNA COTTA
Recipes are lists of ingredients; technique is what turns good recipes into great dishes. And in the course of all of that panna cotta testing, I found a couple of little tricks that are really important, because there is little more disappointing than thinking you’ve perfected a recipe only to have it flop.
On two occasions, panna cotta recipes that had previously worked failed. I unmolded the ramekins to find that somehow the mixture had separated into a thin layer of clear gel at the bottom and a stiff custard on top. It’s not an uncommon problem.
There are two easy steps to prevent it. First, before you take the pan from the heat, rub a little bit of the cream mixture between your fingers – there shouldn’t be any grit from undissolved sugar or gelatin. Then whisk the mixture in an ice bath until it’s lukewarm.
Total time: 40 minutes, plus chilling time
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
2½ cups heavy cream
1½ cups whole milk
5 tablespoons sugar
1 (2-inch) section vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise, or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Stir to distribute, and set aside to soften 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Wipe the insides of 8 (one-half-cup) ramekins with a light coating of neutral oil and set aside. Half-fill a large bowl with ice and add enough water to make an ice bath and set aside.
3. In a small saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar and split vanilla bean, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, and whisk in the softened gelatin and the vanilla extract, if using. Scrape the vanilla seeds from the bean pod into the mixture, and discard the pod.
4. Set the saucepan in the ice bath (making sure the top of the saucepan is well above the surface of the water), and whisk until the mixture is lukewarm. Rub your fingers together: There should be no grit from undissolved sugar or gelatin.
5. Ladle the mixture into the oiled ramekins and chill at least 4 hours or overnight. If you’re going to keep them longer than overnight, cover them with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap gently against the panna cotta to prevent a skin from forming. Be aware that preparing the panna cotta more than 24 hours in advance will result in a somewhat firmer set.
6. About 10 minutes before serving, run a thin-bladed knife around the inside of the ramekin. Dip the ramekin briefly in a bowl of hot tap water, and then carefully invert onto a serving plate. If the panna cotta doesn’t unmold right away, tap the ramekin lightly on the countertop to loosen it. If it still doesn’t unmold, return it to the hot water bath for another five seconds and repeat. Panna cotta can also be served without unmolding.
Each serving: 320 calories; 4 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 29 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 107 mg cholesterol; 10 grams sugar; 50 mg sodium.