Panna cotta (sweet and savoury)

by nike, October 25, 2017

Panna cotta flavoured with chamomile, served with nasturtiums and candied cumquats.

Recently, a friend posted on FaceBook asking about the difference between panna cotta and creme brûlée (I’m looking at you, Ben Payne). The ensuing conversation was a wondrous thing in many ways (I cannot tell you how wonderfully strange is the food chat of SF nerds), and upsetting in others. It turns out that many of my dear virtual friends, and the friends of said friends, are not friends of the panna cotta, plumping unreservedly for its sweeter, yellower, Frencher cousin.

In the ensuing conversation, I promised to share my recipe for savoury panna cotta, hence this blog post. But first, a little more about this simple, decadent, perfect delight.

Panna cotta is an Italian dessert: a simple, set ‘custard’ of cream, sugar and gelatine, set into a mould and served, like a jelly, inverted out onto the plate. In its classic guise it is a creamy white colour, sometimes speckled with vanilla grains, and served with a caramel sauce. Contemporary chefs, however, have produced some extraordinary marvels.

Golden (saffron) panna cotta with pistachio crush, caramel sauce, little meringues and edible flowers.

A sweet panna cotta can be infused with almost any flavour that suits you and served with complementary fruits, sauces and herbs. One of my favourite combinations is (of course) an Australian delight: lemon myrtle and wattleseed (infuse the panna cotta and serve with a wattle seed biscuit). I also adore the flavour combination pioneered by Aurora Mazzucchelli: plain panna cotta dressed with nasturtiums, peas and strawberries – a beautiful Spring combination. At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston they were serving a goat cheese and nasturtium panna cotta ‘cake’ served with a rhubarb compote (in 2014 – not sure if it’s still on the menu!). Yes please! Beautiful on the plate, and simple enough to recreate at home. At home, I love to serve up a saffron panna cotta — golden as the sun — with sugared rose petals and/or violets, or anything pretty and a little bit sweet. The golden indulgence of a saffron PC is also beautiful served with a pistachio praline. I’m a big liquorice fan, so you can always melt my heart with a lovely aniseed version: the blacker and bluer the better.

To make a sweet panna cotta:

If you’re using gelatine sheets, add two (gold-strength) to a bowl of cold water. Whatever setting agent you use, check the amount you need against the instructions for you product. Usually, it will tell you how much to add for each 100ml of liquid. I’ve been told that the trick is to use as little setting agent as possible to get the best texture, and to never exceed the equivalent of 8gm of gelatine per 500ml liquid.

Heat 250ml of cream and 50ml of milk to a saucepan. Add 50g of caster sugar. Adding the sugar now will help retard the heating up of your milk/cream so that it will be less likely to boil over. Stir over a medium heat until it almost comes to the boil, almost! You don’t want it burnt. Yuck! You can flavour your mix now, with almost anything you like: the scrapings of a vanilla pod, a splash of rosewater or orange blossom water, mint, strawberry, liquorice, coffee, chocolate. Lavender is another of my favourite things to add at this stage: a truly old-fashioned but delicious aromatic, dusty flavour.

Remove from the heat.

Remove your gelatine sheets from the cold water, squeeze them dry, and then which into your mix. Or add your agar agar!

Once your setting agent has dissolved, pour the mixture into your moulds. Classic panna cotta moulds (dariole moulds) are straight-sided, but you can set your panna cotta in anything, really, as long as it has suitably smooth insides. Teacups are a good size, usually. Place them in the fridge. They’ll need at least two hours to set. Once set, invert onto a serving plate and serve with a pretty array of suitably complementary fruits, vegetables, herbs or sauce, as described above!

  • Donna Hay has a recipe for a buttermilk panna cotta, which will give you a slightly more tart/yoghurty taste.
  • You could also replace some or all of the cream with yoghurt for a sharper taste.

Savoury (goats cheese) panna cotta with vino cotto/beetroot reduction, baby salad leaves (rocket, beetroot, etc) and roasted cherry tomato.

Savoury panna cotta, however, is perhaps more dear to my heart. There’s something about the creamy texture and shiny texture that’s just so … so … thrilling. Below is a recipe for a cheese panna cotta – I use a good blue cheese, preferably an Italian gorgonzola dolce but you can substitute a goats cheese for a milder version. Serve your savoury panna cotta with crisp, snapping crackers, green sprouts and figs, or with sliced fresh pears and a parmesan sauce.

To make a savoury panna cotta:

Soak three gold-strength gelatine leaves in cold water (you can replace the gelatine with a vegan/vegetarian setting agent such as agar agar: follow the supplier’s instructions for how much to use!).

Combine 400ml cream in a saucepan and heat to just below boiling point. Remove from the heat. Whisk in 150gm of gorgonzola dolce (or goats cheese). It will melt into the cream, trust me. Now squeeeeeeeze the water out of your gelatine, and whisk that in, too.

Pour into lightly oiled moulds and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Gorgonzola dolce panna cotta served with a beetroot, apple, walnut salad.

Serve with grilled or plain figs, quartered, and lovely salty crackers. It’s lovely as part of a cheese platter/savoury nibbles plate with things like grapes, crackers, snow pea sprouts. If you like, make a very plain cold dressing (shake up some balsamic and oil) and pour over your creamy towers, then sprinkle with a few toasted walnuts.

Christmas! Birthday! 

For a special occasion, make a plain sweet panna cotta flavoured with just a dash of rosewater, and set in champagne glasses, half filled. Make a champagne or sparkling jelly and fill the top half of the glasses. To make sparkling jelly, simply gently heat your champagne, then add gelatine leaves and whisk to dissolve. To avoid ‘bleed’ between your two layers, cool the sparkling jelly a little before pouring over the top of your panna cotta layer. Serve with a drift of persian fairy floss.

Oh, the possibilities are endless!!

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