I want to tell you about the lasagna, the one I first made a year ago and forgot to blog about. This year it lived up to its memory, but it took much longer to get into the oven. That’s a whole other story. Let’s start with something easy, which means I want to begin at the end. Let’s talk dessert.
With an Italian menu taking shape for a holiday dinner party — fresh mozzarella drizzled in olive oil and herbs, a radicchio and arugula salad, lasagna bolognese — I considered my dessert options. Espresso granita with whipped cream? Maybe. That watermelon granita went over well with friends a few months ago, but it’s kinda chilly out. Tiramisu… love you but not doing it for me right now. Chocolate pudding? Man, I love chocolate pudding, and for some reason it reminds me of December. But Italian? Not so much.
Then it hit me: panna cotta.
Panna cotta, which in Italian translates to ‘cooked cream,’ has been on my to-cook list, and as it turns out, everything I’ve heard about panna cotta is true. It’s delicious, super easy to make, and you can make enough for a crowd or just enough to serve two. You can flavor it as you like, and unmold it onto a plate or not. You can make it two days before you need to serve them. In so many ways, panna cotta is the perfect dessert.
An espresso panna cotta to follow pasta? Totally perfect. I don’t think I can get away with saying this is a light dessert since the main ingredient is heavy cream, but it doesn’t feel heavy after dinner. I like to think of it as a sort-of pudding version of the after-dinner espresso, especially when it comes to you in a 4-ounce jar.
That little glass jar is important, by the way, when you’re serving dessert for 14. It didn’t take much to make this espresso panna cotta and it doesn’t need to take much more to serve. Pull the tray with the panna cotta jars out of the fridge, sprinkle the panna cotta with cacao nibs and raspberries, and then head to the table and let everyone take one. I mean, it’s not coming at you wrapped with a big red bow on it, but it does feel like a little gift at the end of a meal.
espresso panna cotta
A super easy and super classy dessert for a dinner party. It whips up very quickly and you can make it up to 2 days before your guests show up. I wasn’t sure doubling this for 16 servings would work but I trusted in my brief but successful experience with gelatin (marshmallows!) and it worked out very well. Just the same, feel free to halve this recipe to serve 8. I used 4-ounce jelly jars to serve a dinner party of 14, but you can use coffee mugs, wine or martini glasses, or pretty much any other small bowl or glass you like. I topped it off with some cacao nibs and fresh raspberries. Whipped cream would of course be excellent here, too. Adapted from David Lebovitz, who adapted his recipe from Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witt, and Giada De Laurentiis.
8 cups heavy cream or half-and-half
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup instant espresso powder
pinch of salt
4 teaspoons of vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
4 packets powdered unflavored gelatin (about 9 teaspoons)
3/4 cup cold water
cacao nibs and fresh raspberries, for serving
Heat the heavy cream, sugar, and instant espresso powder in a 3-quart or larger saucepan. Once the sugar and espresso powder dissolves, remove saucepan from heat and stir in the vanilla extract. (If using a vanilla bean, DL says to scrape the seeds from the bean into the cream and throw in the bean pod, too. Cover and let infuse for 30 minutes. Remove the bean and rewarm the mixture before continuing with the recipe.)
Arrange 12 to 16 4-ounce jelly jars on a small sheet pan (to make it easier to place in the fridge and later serve). You can also use wine or martini glasses for any extra panna cotta mixture. I serve the panna cotta in the jars, but if you plan to unmold the panna cotta, lightly oil the custard cups with a neutral-tasting oil.
Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a large bowl and let stand 5 to 10 minutes so it absorbs the water.
Pour the very warm cream mixture over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.
Divide the panna cotta mixture into the jars or cups, and chill until firm, about 2 to 4 hours. Panna cotta will keep refrigerated for up to 2 days.
To serve, garnish each serving of panna cotta with cacao nibs and fresh raspberries. (If you are serving the panna cotta without the jar, run a sharp knife around the edge of each panna cotta and unmold onto a plate.)
Serves about 16.