Panna cotta is a creamy, puddinglike dessert made by cooking cream, sugar and milk together then adding unflavored gelatin to firm it while it chills. Usually cooled in individual ramekins, panna cotta (PAHN-na KOH-tah) looks elegant when gently flipped onto a pool of sauce and crowned with a handful of berries.
Sometimes the northern Italian treat is flavored with vanilla or cocoa powder, but it is not terribly sweet so it needs a bit of a boost.
Think of panna cotta, which means "cooked cream" in Italian, as a blank slate. It can be adorned with nuts, caramel, berries, chocolate and sometimes even savory elements. Primi Urban Cafe in downtown St. Petersburg makes a version with blue cheese. We're seeing more and more panna cotta at area restaurants, including Belleair Grill and Wine Bar in Clearwater.
In a San Francisco restaurant last year, I ate panna cotta served on a shallow pool of artisan olive oil. The sweet mingled with the earthy oil and then pow!, a blast of salt. The pastry chef had judiciously placed four or so crunchy bits of sea salt on top. It may be the single most delicious thing I've ever eaten.
The most difficult aspect of making panna cotta may be the unmolding. Some recipes call for rinsing the ramekins and leaving them wet so that the chilled cooked cream slides out easily. Still, you may have a few failures. Luckily, it's not an expensive dessert (unless you spring for the vanilla bean) so making a few trial-and-errors are affordable.
Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor