Who bakes on Valentine’s Day? Most of us don’t, but we should. And the first thing you might want to try is panna cotta. A few minutes at the stove suffice to bring together this simple Italian dessert, a mixture of cream and sugar, thickened with gelatin. Though it’s easy enough to make by hand, the magical and sensuous texture will make any heart swoon. Its simplicity can be your little secret.
The only reason I waited so long to make panna cotta myself is that gelatin scares me a little. It’s not that I’m squeamish in the kitchen. I have a habit of baking elaborate desserts. But gelatin? There’s something mysteriously scientific about it. It reminds me of pipettes and Bunsen burners. As it turns out, there’s really nothing simpler. Pour your cream mixture into ramekins, and you can focus on what’s important – time with the person you love. The magic happens as the panna cotta chills and gels into a dessert that’s creamy without being heavy.
The name means “cooked cream” in Italian, but what’s in a name? It doesn’t have to be made with cream. Part of the beauty of panna cotta is its versatility. Using half-and-half, whole milk or even low-fat milk creates the same firm, silky result. Unlike a custard, where egg proteins have to form a fragile network across liquid molecules at just the right temperature so that the concoction sets smoothly, panna cotta has the power of gelatin as insurance for its perfect texture.
Unmolded, panna cotta holds its shape with a pristine, clean-edged beauty. The milky whiteness almost glows. It feels like eating a reflection of the moon.
For purists, panna cotta’s silky texture has a magic that bears no tampering with, no added flavors, no distractions. But if you choose the flavor route, coffee and chocolate are traditional (and make perfect sense paired with cream and milk). For Valentine’s Day, raspberry coulis adds a decorative blush of color.