As much as I love to bake fancy cakes and interesting cookies, my family probably gets most excited over anything in the custard and pudding realm, i.e. creamy desserts. They love everything from rice pudding to ice cream, and definitely this dead simple buttermilk honey panna cotta.
Panna cotta is one of my go-to make-ahead desserts, especially when I have random cartons of dairy taking up space in the fridge. It’s incredibly flexible: you can infuse the cream with spices or herbs, or even swap in different types of dairy. Make it the afternoon before serving, or stash them in the fridge for up to a week. Top panna cotta with seasonal fruit, or serve something crisp like brittle or shortbread cookies.
Whenever possible, I love making panna cotta with buttermilk. The slight tang adds an interesting element to this otherwise very simple dessert, the perfect foil for sweet seasonal fruits. However, if you don’t have buttermilk on hand you can easily replace it with an equal quantity of whole milk.
On working with gelatin
Ok, I know a lot of people have qualms over working with gelatin. Sheet vs. powder, how much to use, etc. — I realize it can be overwhelming. But I encourage you to get comfortable with using gelatin — it really opens up an exciting world of delicious desserts!
I almost always use powdered gelatin since it’s most readily accessible where I live. I buy it in bulk and keep it in an airtight container, and it lasts forever. If you’re using another type of gelatin, you can use this gelatin converter to estimate the amount you’ll need.
The amount of gelatin in this recipe is also flexible. If I’m planning to unmold the panna cottas, I use the amount listed which provides a medium set and enough structure so the panna cotta holds on a plate. If I’m going to serve the panna cotta in the container, then sometimes I’ll decrease the gelatin by about 1/3 for a very wobbly, barely set texture. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference; so pick one end of the spectrum and note how you like the texture. Then, if needed, you can adjust the amount in the future until you obtain your ideal panna cotta wobble.
Molding and unmolding panna cotta
You can use pretty much any container to set your panna cotta. For unmolded panna cotta, I have glass pudding cups similar to these which work perfectly. I just lightly oil the insides before pouring in the mixture. To unmold, dip the mold in very hot (but not boiling water) for about 5-6 seconds, then invert onto a plate. If the panna cotta doesn’t release readily, you might need to give the glass a few taps or warm it for a few more seconds.
Of course, you can just serve the panna cotta in the mold too! Set the mixture in little mason jars, wine glasses or little tumblers for a fun presentation. Or go casual family style and pour it all into a cake pan, then just scoop out individual portions.
What to serve with panna cotta
While panna cotta is delicious on its own there are definitely lots of ways to dress it up. Here are just a few ideas.
- Fruity: My favorite accompaniment for panna cotta is a chunky fruit compote to add some texture — basically just cook some fruit with a touch of sugar and a little liquid until thickened but not completely broken down. Or try some roasted (strawberries or peaches!) or poached (pears!) fruit! Or keep it even simpler by just macerating some berries with a little sugar to get the juices flowing.
- Crunchy: Roasted or candied nuts, granola or streusel, brittle, shortbread fingers, tuiles
- Saucy: A drizzle of caramel sauce, ganache, infused syrup
- Icy: Serve on a bed of granita or alongside a scoop of sorbet
Panna cotta troubleshooting
- Don’t boil the gelatin. Boiling gelatin can hinder its setting power. The dairy only needs to be heated enough to melt the gelatin, so I just look for the cream to be steaming before adding the bloomed gelatin.
- When mixing dairy products with different fat levels (i.e. buttermilk and heavy cream), don’t skip the cooling process at room temperature before refrigerating the panna cotta. If you put the mixture straight into the fridge while warm, the cream will likely rise to the top and you’ll end up with two distinct layers. It might look cool, but probably not what you want. Let the whole mixture cool to roughly room temperature, stirring occasionally to keep everything emusified, before dividing into molds and chilling.
- Don’t rush the setting time. Give the panna cotta at least 4 hours to set, especially if you plan to unmold them.
- 300g heavy cream, divided
- 10.5g (3 1/2 tsp) powdered gelatin*
- 60g good quality honey
- Pinch of salt
- 420g buttermilk**
- 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- Pour 60g heavy cream into a small bowl. Sprinkle the powdered gelatin evenly over the surface and set aside to bloom for 5-10 minutes. Set a strainer over a 4-cup glass measuring cup or large jug with a spout.
- Meanwhile, combine the remaining 240g heavy cream, honey, and salt in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally, until cream is just steaming and the honey is dissolved. Remove from heat.
- Scrape the bloomed gelatin into the warm cream mixture and whisk until gelatin has fully dissolved. Strain into the prepared glass measuring cup.
- Let cream mixture cool until lukewarm, whisking occasionally. Whisk in the buttermilk and vanilla. Allow to cool to roughly room temperature, about 20 minutes, whisking occasionally to make sure the mixture is homogenous. (Don't skip this cooling process as it helps prevent the cream and buttermilk from separating in the fridge.)
- Divide the mixture evenly between six ramekins or serving glasses (about 120-130g each). If you plan to unmold the panna cottas, lightly grease the molds beforehand. Refrigerate until set, about 4 hours or up to a week. (If you plan on storing them in the fridge for more than half a day, cover with plastic wrap.)
- To unmold, dip the mold into very warm (not boiling) water for 5-6 seconds. Invert onto a serving plate. Add garnish/sauces if desired -- I love serving panna cotta with a chunky compote!
- Store panna cottas in the fridge for up to a week.
*If you don't plan to unmold the panna cottas, you can reduce the gelatin to as little as 7g (about 2 1/8 tsp, or one package) for a very wobbly, just-set texture.
**Buttermilk can be replaced with an equal weight of whole milk.