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In Our Kitchen: Recipe for Espresso Panna Cotta, for a crowd

After dinner, my husband often wants a little sip of something more or a bite of something sweet. At a restaurant in Chicago years ago, he ordered and never forgot one thing on the menu: a so-called after-pork digestif. There was a lot of pork at this dinner, and here was this liqueur served at the end of the meal, as if to punctuate it and soothe your full stomach.

The classic after-dinner coffee is the same idea just without the alcohol. With an upcoming dinner party, I wanted to play off this idea but combine it with dessert. With 12 people joining us for dinner, it had to be something I could make ahead. And it shouldn't be too over the top.

The answer was something I'd been meaning to try cooking at home for some time: panna cotta. In so many ways, it is the perfect dinner party dessert. It can be prepared up to two days before your friends arrive. You can make enough for a crowd or just enough for two. You can flavor the versatile panna cotta as you like, and you can unmold it onto small plates or not. With a crowd, I poured my mixture into 4-ounce jelly jars and served them in those jars.

Panna cotta, which in Italian translates to "cooked cream," is a blank slate for whatever flavor strikes you. In this version I made espresso panna cotta — silky, smooth and tasting purely of coffee.

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. Really.

I wasn't sure doubling this recipe would work but I trusted in my brief but successful experience using gelatin to make marshmallows, and it worked out very well. Maybe you're having an end-of-summer party and need to feed a crowd, like I did. Either way, feel free to halve this recipe to serve eight. Instead of glass jars you can use coffee mugs, wine or martini glasses, or pretty much any other small bowl or glass you have.

This is an easy and classy dessert that is a bit more elegant than summer's scoops of ice cream. Serving is just as simple. Pull the tray with the panna cotta jars out of the fridge, sprinkle each serving of panna cotta with cacao nibs and raspberries, and then head to the table and let everyone take one. For a little more indulgence, add whipped cream.

Ileana Morales Valentine lives in St. Petersburg with her husband. For more of their kitchen stories, visit her blog, ALittleSaffron.com. Say hello at alittlesaffron@gmail.com.

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