Spring swept into town last week like an exaltation of larks. The only downside was the accompanying perfume of East Texas chicken farms.
But it is bright and beautiful outside and the excitement in the air is thicker than the chilly gray fog that’s been hovering above Nacogdoches the past few weeks. Shorts and flip-flops are replacing sweaters and rainboots on campus (although many never gave up on the former options, even in pre-tornado conditions), and library carrels are being abandoned for the nearest patches of dry lawn.
My challenge? My menu. These first kisses of warm sun have me thinking about lemonade and salad, but dare I believe the sunny days are here to stay? (Apologies to those of you reading from snowy climes; curses accepted). Moreover, by the time the evening chill settles in, I’m back to craving winter comfort food, topped off with a flop on the sofa with my latest novel (Total Immersion, by Allegra Goodman. I think she is a brilliant writer).
So I’ve decided to cop out and bake bread and make dessert instead. I have a backlog of soup in the freezer from recent recipe testing, so defrosting I will go (besides, I teach at 5:30 tonight; the timing always presents a challenge unless I cook ahead). I’ve sloshed and sifted ingredients into the breadmaking machine; a loaf of five seed wheat bread is on the way in another few hours (it’s a superb recipe from Sunset). Last, I’ve stirred up a batch of yogurt and honey panna cotta for dessert.
I am crazy for panna cotta because it routinely solves my problem of what to make for dessert, whether for an elegant dinner party or a casual Tuesday supper at home, with little effort and grand results.
I’ve earmarked hundreds of complicated dessert recipes in my copies of Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine over the years, with grand plans of making the colossal desserts for future get-togethers. But whenever such a friendly fête rolls around, I’m typically preoccupied with the location and removal of dust bunnies and soap scum in between cooking dinner. Foolish notions of tempering chocolate and piping dacquoise disks are promptly squashed. And, in the end, even my food-loving friends and family feel the seams in their pants surrender at the mere mention of a triple-tiered coconut buttercream cake at the close of a meal.
Panna cotta, a soft, creamy Italian custard with plenty of style, but little fuss, is the answer to it all. Light and silken, it’s a true dinner dessert, slipping down effortlessly after suppers big or small. The name translates as “cooked cream” and the recipe is almost as straightforward: heat some heavy cream, add some sugar, softened gelatin, and flavorings, and then chill until set.
Much like vanilla ice cream, panna cotta is a blank slate. One master panna cotta recipe can be transformed by varying the liquid for softening the gelatin, the type of sweetener, or the type of extract used. Or experiment with the addition of any number of spices, from cinnamon to ginger to cardamom.
I panna cotta-ed myself (and husband) silly writing a book on the subject, yet we still look forward to it. These days I most often make it with lighter ingredients; the results are so delicious, you’ll bust your buttons when you try it (from the pleasure and pride in making it, not from the fat and calories).
Case in point, my Greek yogurt panna cotta. Adding yogurt or sour cream to panna cotta heightens both the flavor (a subtle tang) and texture (like velvet), and also more closely approximates the thick, tangy cream of Northern Italy, the region in which panna cotta originated.
I’m keeping the flavorings fresh and spare today: a bit of fresh lemon juice and zest matched with a touch of cardamom. I keep the amount of gelatin to the lowest amount possible for a silky texture that is set without being rubbery.
Finally, this version of panna cotta can either be made in its entirety up to a day ahead or, prepared just before dinner (by the time you get around to dessert 3 hours later, it will be set.
The results for either method? Silky, smooth, streamlined—perfect. Happy Tuesday.
- 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin powder
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- ¼ cup honey
- ⅓ cup lowfat milk
- 1-1/3 cups lowfat plain Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
- In a small bowl sprinkle gelatin over lemon juice. Let stand 5 minutes until dissolved (no powder remains).
- In a medium saucepan stir together the honey and milk. Heat until hot but not boiling. Add gelatin and stir until gelatin is dissolved. Remove from heat. Whisk in the yogurt, lemon zest and cardamom until smooth. Pour into 4 individual ramekins/custard cups OR decorative glasses.
- Transfer to refrigerator. Refrigerate 3-4 hours until set (or up to 24 hours).
- Serve with berries or fruit, if desired.