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Panna cotta: the ultimate no-fuss pudding

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 12:55 UK time, Tuesday, 3 July 2012

On this week’s Saturday Kitchen James Martin treated himself to a luxury, Michelin-starred 40th birthday feast. And finishing off the meal was one of his favourites – a buttermilk panna cotta with doughnuts and jelly.  I understood the appeal of a freshly fried doughnut as a birthday treat, but panna cotta seemed a surprisingly elegant and restrained choice.

Frankly, I don’t understand why they aren’t more popular.  Forget the faff and fat of cheesecake, never mind not having an ice cream machine, panna cotta knows all their best tricks and can still be made in five minutes before work.  Warm some cream and milk, stir in some soaked gelatine leaves or powder, a spoon of flavouring and pop it in ramekins or small bowls to set in the fridge.

Pale and quivering, panna cotta is the dessert equivalent of a supermodel – always beautiful, whatever dress she's wearing. Perhaps we deem them a little too perfect: falling instead for the femme-fatale brownie or girl-next-door crumble.

Or perhaps the combination of gelatine and milk conjures up visions of strange, wobbly 1960s cafeteria desserts. Fear not, the cream content keeps the wobble slight and the texture anything but jellified.  The amount of cream to milk is a matter of personal taste:  Antonio Carluccio will do with nothing less than 80% cream, while fellow Italian Gennaro Contaldo is content with half cream and half milk.

I can also thoroughly recommend James Martin’s favourite addition of buttermilk. It adds a freshness that isn’t as sharp as yoghurt. And while this is never going to be a diet dessert - an all-milk version would indeed be wibbly-wobbly and lack the unctuousness that the dish demands - buttermilk is a good way of slightly lowering the fat content without skimping on flavour.

While Anna del Conte is clear that the original Piedmontese version is flavoured with vanilla and rum and doesn’t bother with any fruit, imagination seems the only limit to the variations. Almost any strongly flavoured liqueur or syrup can work. Stir in a tablespoon or so of ginger syrup from the jar, elderflower cordial, or limoncello when the cream has cooled slightly.

Chocolate is a great option – but if you’re using cocoa powder it will need to be cooked in the cream for a few minutes to remove any powder taste.  Or you can add herbs, citrus zest or flower petals to the cream to infuse while it cools – basil, lavender or elderflower work well.

The combinations of flavour in the panna cotta and accompanying fruit make for even more exciting experimentation. July sees the summer berries, currants and cherries in full force - either fresh or slightly crushed with sugar, the key to complementing this pudding is tartness.

And this is a peak time for milk and cream – pasture-fed cattle are out grazing, and the flavour of the sweet grass makes their milk even tastier.  This is especially noticeable in raw milk, but you can also taste the difference if you can get hold of organic milk that hasn’t been homogenised. 

Panna cotta round-up

What are your favourite variations and combinations?

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