Panna cotta is a silky, delicious dessert that is surprising easy to make. Originating in Italy, panna cotta literally means “cooked cream” although today there is little cooking going on. Instead panna cotta is simply made with some cream, a little gelatin to thicken it, some sugar to add sweetness and whatever you prefer for flavoring. Then let it set in the refrigerator for at least a couple hours until chilled and ready to eat.
In this version, I use Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans, which contrary to what the name may suggest, are not bourbon flavored! The name actually comes from the Bourbon islands off the coast of Madagascar where the plants are grown. Madagascar Bourbon beans are one of the most common types of vanilla beans, and are known for their sweet, creamy flavor. If you can find it, Tahitian beans are great to use as well. Tahitian beans have more of a floral flavor to them. If you’re thinking of using chocolate to sprinkle on top, then consider Mexican vanilla beans, they have a spicier, deeper flavor that pairs well with dark chocolate.
Yes, I know that I mentioned little cooking goes on with panna cotta, but there are some tips I learned which does involve a bit of heating. Adding the gelatin to warm water (20-30 seconds in the microwave) helps it to dissolve quickly. I also found that warming the cream and allowing the bean pod to soak for 15 minutes, infuses more flavor then just scraping out the seeds. A little trivia here — I found out later that vanilla extract is actually made from soaking the beans in alcohol in order to extract the flavor. And as a final tip, sugar dissolves faster in warmed cream.
I made this version of panna cotta with a simple balsamic blueberry compote. I generally make the compote just before serving the chilled panna cotta, and then let the compote cool down so it is slightly warm. Have fun trying your own versions!
Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Balsamic Blueberry Compote
Makes 4 x 6-ounce puddings
- 2 tsp. powdered gelatin, unflavored (+1/2 tsp if unmolding)
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 cups half-and-half cream
- 1/2 cup fresh (or frozen) blueberries
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 Tbsp. aged balsamic vinegar
- mint leaves, to garnish
- If unmolding, lightly grease the ramekins with non-stick cooking spray or a neutral oil. Wipe the excess oil out, leaving only a very light coating.
- Slice the vanilla bean open on one side and use the flat of the knife to lightly scrape out the seeds, add to slightly warm cream. Once the seeds are scraped out, add the bean to the cream and let sit for 15 minutes.
- Mix the gelatin with water in a small microwave-proof bowl. Heat in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds to dissolve.
- After 15 minutes, remove the bean from the cream, and discard. Mix the sugar in a medium bowl with the warmed cream until sugar is dissolved. Add the gelatin mix to the cream and stir well with a rubber spatula.
- Divide among 4 ramekins (6-ounce size). Refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours to chill and set if serving in the ramekins. If unmolding, let refridgerate for at least 4 hours.
- To unmold, fill a large bowl or dish with warm water. Run a thin-bladed knife around the sides of the ramekin, then dip the ramekin in a bowl of warm water for about 5 seconds to help break the seal at the bottom. Finally, carefully invert on the plate and gently shake to release.
- For the balsamic blueberry compote, heat the blueberries in a small saucepan, add sugar and balsamic vinegar. Stir and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes , until the sugar dissolves. Let cool until slightly warm
- Garnish with one or two small mint leaves. Buon appetito!