Whenever I see on a menu panna cotta, the gelatinous Italian dessert, I order it. A creamy, vanilla-flavoured jelly: heaven. But, until this weekend, I had been wary of making it at home. Gelatine is an ingredient that makes me nervous. My one attempt to use the powdered stuff was a debacle; and advice on the quantities to use is inconsistent. However, when I came across some leaf gelatine in a local shop, I thought that I should give one of my favourite sweet things a go.
(What you should do with powdered gelatine, I think, is pour it into a small volume of water in a bowl. Leave it for five minutes to go spongy, then suspend the bowl above a pan of simmering water, stirring the mixture until the gelatine dissolves.)
Some recipes for panna cotta involve simply heating milk, cream, vanilla and sugar, stirring in the gelatine, and pouring the mixture into moulds. Others, such as those by Nigel Slater, tell you to whip a portion of the cream and to fold it into the gelatinous liquid. I decided to follow the latter course.
I was not confident about the quantity of gelatine. The packet says that five sheets will set a litre of liquid; but I assumed that I would need a lower proportion than that, owing to the thickening of the cream. I was serving eight people.
600 ml double cream
200 ml milk
2 vanilla pods
60 g icing sugar
3 leaves gelatine
Pour the milk and 400 ml of the cream into a small saucepan. Slice the vanilla pods from end to end, scrape the seeds into the milk and cream, throw in the pods as well, bring the pan to a simmer, and allow the contents to bubble gently for five minutes. Meanwhile, soak the gelatine in a small bowl of cold water. After about four to five minutes, it will become slithery. Take the pan off the heat, remove the vanilla pods, lift the gelatine from the water, and stir it into the milk and cream until it dissolves. (It does so much more readily than does the powdered stuff.)
Whip the remaining cream with the sugar until the mixture makes soft peaks, but before it becomes firm. Fold the sweetened cream into the gelatinous cream and milk; pour everything through a sieve into a jug. Pour the mixture into eight ramekins, cover with clingfilm, and chill.
A little fruity acidity offsets a panna cotta nicely. I tipped a punnet of blueberries into a small saucepan with a dstsp of caster sugar, and heated them until they had burst and reduced to a compote-like consistency. I chilled this compote separately. Just before serving, I put a spoonful of compote on to each ramekin.
Some people like to turn out the panna cottas. The technique is to dip the ramekins briefly in hot water, before inverting them over plates.
After the panna cottas had been in the fridge for two hours, I was worried. They were still liquid. But they set during the following hour.
Some recipes, though not Nigel Slater's, tell you to let the gelatinous cream and milk cool and thicken a little before you stir in the whipped cream. That seems to make sense, because otherwise the whipped cream thins out on contact with the hot liquid. But I mixed them up right away, and got a very satisfactory result.