I was recently tasked with bringing dessert to a family dinner, but with the hot weather beating down on us I immediately knew there was no way I was going to fire up my oven to bake anything. So I started to think about all the no-bake dessert options out there. I considered making a frozen dessert, but didn’t have enough time for the freezing process, so I made the next best thing… panna cotta!
Panna cotta, which translates to “cooked cream” in Italian, is a no-bake dessert of sweetened cream that’s set with gelatin. It has a similar consistency to custard, but it’s eggless and utilizes a combination of heavy cream and milk or buttermilk. It can be simply flavored with vanilla, or you can add citrus zest, coffee or flavored liqueurs.
The finished dessert is usually unmolded for a nice plate presentation and served with fruit or a fruit sauce, but can just as easily be made and served in small, clear plastic cups which are ideal for transporting to a dinner party or a picnic. And the clean up? So easy!
To make the recipe, you’ll want to first bloom your gelatin. Whether you’re using gelatin sheets or powdered gelatin, the process is more or less similar. If using sheets, which is when the gelatin is dried into flat plank-like pieces, place them in a bowl and cover with cold water; the amount of water doesn’t really matter because you will be discarding it.
After about a minute, you’ll notice that the gelatin sheets have softened and become pliable, and are ready to be transferred to the cream mixture.
If using powdered gelatin, which is when gelatin has been dried and ground up into individual granules, measure the powder into a bowl and whisk in the amount of water called for in the recipe to rehydrate the granules. Within 5 to 10 minutes the gelatin will have absorbed the water and will look like apple sauce. Now it’s ready to be added to the cream mixture. Keep in mind that gelatin is an animal product (mostly from pigs), and not vegetarian or kosher friendly (although there is kosher gelatin made from beef available as well). You can also substitute agar-agar, which is made from seaweed, for a fully vegetarian version.
While the gelatin is blooming, heat your heavy cream and vanilla in a saucepan until just warm and then remove from the heat. Add the rehydrated gelatin (remember to discard the water if using leaf gelatin), and sugar and whisk until smooth.
To jump start the cooling process, stir your cold milk or buttermilk into the mixture. I like using buttermilk because of the extra tang, but plain milk is delicious, too. Transfer the mixture to a liquid measuring cup with a pouring spout, and pour into the vessels of your choice, dividing evenly between them as you go.
Place them in the refrigerator, and allow the gelatin to set the panna cotta until it looks like the consistency of Jell-O, which takes about 2 hours.
Once the panna cotta was set, I packaged them up and took them with me to my destination. Right before serving, I topped each panna cotta with sliced nectarines, cherries and blueberries that had been lightly tossed with a touch of sugar to bring out the fruit juices, along with some fresh mint from our garden for extra brightness.
It was the ideal dessert for a hot summer day, as it was refreshing, cool and featured seasonal fruit. It also used very few ingredients, was simple to put together, and easy to transport. What could be better?
Picnic Panna Cotta with Summer Fruit
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Yield: 6 servings
Active time: 30 minutes
Start to finish: 2 hours, 30 minutes
For the panna cotta:
5 sheets gelatin (see note, below)
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups buttermilk
For the fruit:
2 cups fresh fruit of your choice, cleaned and cut as necessary
2 to 3 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons fresh mint, rough chopped
1. Place the gelatin sheets in a bowl and add enough cold water to cover. Allow them to bloom in the water until soft, about 5 minutes.
2. Place heavy cream and vanilla in a heavy saucepan. Heat over medium-low heat until a film forms and tiny bubbles appear around edges. Turn the heat to low and stir in sugar and gelatin sheets, discarding the water. Stir until the sugar has completely dissolved. Do not allow the mixture to boil.
3. Remove from the heat and stir in the cold buttermilk. Pour the panna cotta into six small plastic cups or glasses. Chill until completely firm, at least 2 hours.
4. While the panna cotta is setting, toss the fruit in a bowl with the sugar and mint. Allow to sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
5. When ready to serve, spoon the fruit and some of the juices right on top of the panna cotta and enjoy!
If you’re unable to find gelatin sheets, substitute 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of powdered gelatin. Place the powdered gelatin in a small dish, and add 1/4 cup of cold water. Allow it to sit for 5 minutes to bloom. Add the bloomed gelatin and water to the cream in step #2 once heated.
Looking for more classes that don’t require any cooking? Then you definitely won’t want to miss our Virtual Cool Summer Sauces Workshop on Saturday, August 7th from 1-3pm CST. We’ll teach you how to make a variety of flavor-packed sauces without turning on your stove or oven in this virtual cook along.