Panna Cotta: Why Italians Have Figured out How to Do Dinner Party Dessert Right

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Back in the day – like in the 70’s or 80’s  – having a dinner party meant getting dressed up, and going to someone’s house for a thoughtfully planned, plated meal (most likely consisting of a plated salad, a main course that was evenly divided on your plate with a protein, starch and veg, a dessert and a coffee). And, in those days, your dessert was probably a thick slice of chocolate cake.

But, then the internet was invented and everyone had the knowledge at their fingertips to put a different spin on what a dinner party looked like.  In the last few years, someone’s idea of a really nice dinner party may be a bunch of really awesome appetizers and a bunch of really awesome desserts….with no main meal in sight.

So, with all of this new age info comes less complicated meals with more complicated planning (in the old days, the cook in the house – almost always the woman – had only a handful of items in her repertoire to serve).  And, now, if we now want to impress our guests, it might include going outside of our comfort zone – and outside of our repertoire – to create meals from something completely new.

With that in mind, we want to simplify as much of the meal as possible and think about how much time can be used to prep ahead of time so we can enjoy our time with our guests.

Panna Cotta: Why Italians Have Figured out How to Do Dinner Party Dessert Right Just Crumbs Blog by Suzie Durigon

And that, ladies and gents, is where the Italians come in.  Some Italian meals are about laboriously long roasted meats and hours-long proofing of dough to create the perfect pizza. But, on a more regular basis, their cuisine is about fast and simple meals using minimal (but fresh and seasonal) ingredients and quick preparation so they have time to walk to the town square and have an espresso with their friends.

Panna Cotta: Why Italians Have Figured out How to Do Dinner Party Dessert Right Just Crumbs Blog by Suzie Durigon

Panna Cotta (which, literally means cooked milk) is a perfect example. It is made using only a handful of easily sourced ingredients, takes literally minutes to prepare and can be made ahead of time.

And the options are endless…

It can be made in a ramekin and unmolded on a plate for a pretty presentation (and served simply with some stewed fruit like strawberries or peaches…or even some warmed low sugar jam like this); or it can be made in a brandy/champagne/martini glass so you can skip the unmolding step all together, or you can make them into individual shot glasses (like this)  if you are looking for a bite sized dessert. And, the flavour combinations are endless too…this is a plain panna cotta, but you can play around with chocolate or coffee as flavour enhancers and even changing up the milk (to a nut milk or a coconut milk for a vegan option)

Panna Cotta: Why Italians Have Figured out How to Do Dinner Party Dessert Right Just Crumbs Blog by Suzie Durigon

Here are a few tips to make a perfect panna cotta:

  1.  Do not boil the milk…for the best results keep the temperature on low because an active boil can destroy the gelatin’s thickening power..
  2. If you find that there is a layer of gelatin that separates from the milk, switch the whipping cream to half and half…that tends to solve that problem (and reduces the calories!!).
  3. If you use nut milks, the mixture will be far creamier and probably won’t unmold…if choosing this option, definitely use the glass option.
  4. And, if you are serious about vegan options, you have to switch out the gelatin for another option…I would say agar agar is your best bet (but you’ll have to play around with it because I haven’t played around with it for this recipe yet).

So, what are you waiting for?? Get out your brandy snifters and whip up a batch of this delish dessert.  You will get accolades for sure!!

Panna Cotta: Why Italians Have figured out How to Do Dinner Party Dessert Right
Author: Suzie Durigon
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 8
Looking for an easy make ahead dessert that will wow your guests? Look no further than this easy peasy Italian “meal ender” that will have your guests licking the plate!
  • 4 cups (1l) heavy cream or half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup (100g) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of good quality vanilla extract/vanilla bean paste
  • 4 teaspoons powdered unflavored gelatin (just a bit less than 2 packets)
  • 6 tablespoons (90ml) cold water
  1. Heat the heavy cream saucepan and add the sugar, stirring to incorporate.. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract.
  2. Lightly oil, with vegetable oil (or spray with cooking spray) eight custard cups _ or you can use brandy/champagne/martini glasses if you plan not to unmold them.
  3. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a medium bowl and let stand 5 to 10 minutes ((it will start to “bloom” which means it plumps up).
  4. Pour the very warm cream mixture over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.
  5. Divide the panna cotta mixture into the prepared cups, then chill them until firm (at least four hours but best to set overnight)
  6. Fill a bowl with boiling hot water and set aside to help unmold the ramekins then, run a sharp knife around the edge of each Panna cotta and dip the bottom into the hot water for 10 seconds.
  7. Unmold each onto a serving plate by placing the serving plate on top of the ramekin and flipping it over.
  8. Serve with macerated berries or stewed peaches!