Panna cotta is practically the perfect dessert. Let me count the ways. Most important, it’s delicious. A simple concoction of sweetened cream laced with vanilla (and often other flavors), it’s thickened with just enough gelatin to hold its shape and give a slight jiggle, while still being soft enough to readily melt in your mouth.
It offers some practical conveniences, too: It requires no more than a slip of time to prepare, it can be made a day ahead, and it’s served cold or at room temperature (so there’s no need for reheating). Plus, it’s naturally gluten-free and easy to make dairy-free.
The Basic Method
Choose a shape
You can use just about any small vessel to mold your panna cottas. Ramekins, small bowls, pastry molds, and even drinking glasses are all fair game. The mixture will set up in the shape of whatever vessel you choose. From there, it can be unmolded using the recipe instructions or served straight from the vessel.
Change up your dairy
Traditionally, panna cotta (Italian for cooked cream) is made with cream and milk. I use half-and-half in my basic version, but I also like to make panna cotta with other dairy and even nondairy ingredients, which change the flavor and offer subtle differences in texture. Sour cream and buttermilk are favorites. Both give panna cotta a mildly tart flavor. Sour cream also adds extra richness, while a buttermilk version feels even lighter and fresher than the original. For a dairy-free option, I use coconut milk. To accommodate the varying amounts of fat in each of these, I’ve adjusted the amount of gelatin I use, so they all set up beautifully.
Top it off with sauce
Glossy and white, panna cotta can look a bit stark on its own. Fruity toppings like a rhubarb compote, cherry brandy sauce, or blueberry sauce make a bright contrast for the creamy dessert. Honey caramel sauce, on the other hand, adds another layer of complex sweetness. Try mixing and matching the panna cottas and sauces below for an effortlessly sophisticated and tasty way to end a meal.