As a child, my love for sweets was indiscriminate. I had no standards; if it was sugary, I figured it belonged in my mouth. I am, after all, the girl who used to go to bed with a sticky plastic bag of sugary drink mix powder next to my pillow.
But with age comes wisdom—and a better-developed palate. I’m turning 40 this year, and after a lifetime of mindless dessert consumption, I’ve actually become one picky mother. These days, I rarely indulge in sweets—and only when it meets my demanding standards. If I’m going to treat myself to something that’s less than healthy (and let’s face it: dessert ain’t health food), it better knock my socks off.
Homemade panna cotta is one indulgence that fits the bill. Offering up spoonfuls of silky sweetness at the end of a meal, this Italian gelled cream custard has long been one of my favorites. Panna cotta is incredible all by itself, but a dollop of tangy fruit sauce makes it truly special. And what better topping than the classic combination of fresh strawberries and balsamic vinegar?
This recipe calls for just a handful of ingredients, but the quality and ratio of the components are critical to a good panna cotta. Let me be painfully frank: Too many people are making mediocre panna cotta. Some of the offenses I’ve seen? Overly sweet custards or toppings, poor quality cream/nut milk, and incompatible and overpowering toppings.
But the worst infraction of all? Adding too much gelatin. Yes, gelatin’s important for gut and joint health — but I’d much rather down a mug of steaming bone broth rather than chew on rubbery, over-gelatinized panna cotta. Pro tip: If you can hold a bowl of panna cotta upside down over your head with nary a care about messing up your beautifully coiffed head of hair, you used too much gelatin in your dessert. (Or you’re a total slob. Or both.)
Made properly, a panna cotta should be fragile and quivery in texture. This creamy dessert should collapse in on itself when you pierce the surface with your spoon, allowing the fruity sauce and slippery custard to mix and marry.
Now: who’s ready to make panna cotta?
Here’s what to gather to make 4 servings:
For the panna cotta:
- 1¼ teaspoons powdered gelatin (if you aren’t using my homemade almond milk, you may need to increase the amount up to 2 teaspoons)
- 2 cups homemade vanilla almond milk
- 2 tablespoons grade B maple syrup
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
For the strawberry balsamic sauce (makes 1⅓ cups):
- ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 cups hulled strawberries, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon salt
Here’s what you do:
Place two tablespoons of water in a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin on the surface, and let it bloom and rehydrate.
It’ll take 5 to 10 minutes for the gelatin to soften and absorb the water.
While you’re waiting for the gelatin to bloom, grab a large measuring cup and add the almond milk…
Whisk to combine.
Pour the sweetened milk into a small saucepan, and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
When the milk is steaming hot (but not boiling), remove the pan from the heat.
Add a couple of tablespoons of the heated milk to the gelatin…
…and whisk until the gelatin is completely dissolved.
Pour the gelatin into the milk mixture and stir well to combine.
Place four six-ounce ramekins or teacups onto a small rimmed baking tray. Ladle the milk into the containers.
You can also pour the milk into little mason jars.
Allow the cups to cool to room temperature, and then cover the ramekins with plastic wrap.
Place the tray in the fridge and chill for at least 4 hours and up to 4 days.
Now, let’s turn to the topping: strawberry balsamic compote!
Heat the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan over high heat.
When it starts to bubble, turn the heat down to medium and simmer the vinegar until the volume is reduced by half.
It should be thick and syrupy when you draw a spatula through it.
While the vinegar simmers on the burner, slice up the strawberries.
When the balsamic vinegar is reduced, add the strawberries to the saucepan…
…along with the honey, lemon juice, vanilla, and salt.
Simmer the fruity mixture over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes or until the strawberries break down.
Remove the saucepan from the heat, and use an immersion blender to purée some of the sauce. I like my compote chunky, so I leave some of the berries intact, but you can continue blending away if you prefer a smooth sauce.
Store the compote in the fridge in a sealed container for up to a week.
When you’re ready to serve the panna cotta, top each cup with a heaping spoonful of the berry sauce.
Trust me: you’ll wish you made more.
Looking for more recipes? Head on over to my Recipe Index! You’ll also find exclusive recipes on my iPad® app, and in my New York Times bestselling cookbook, Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans (Andrews McMeel 2013).