Panna cotta, Italian for "cooked cream," is an easily prepared ending to any light meal. Its silky texture and delicate flavor are well complemented by virtually any fruit extract, such as lemon or oranges, but here it is presented in its most basic form with a touch of vanilla. Because it is to be unmolded, be sure to measure the container first to ensure it holds the proper amount of liquid, and take care to have the gelatin mixture come close to the top of the container so that when it is inverted it won't have a long fall onto the plate. If using a glass pie dish it is possible to see the dessert pull away from the dish, making the unmolding more easy to control.
2½ cups heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
1 vanilla pod, scraped (optional) or 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin (1 package)
¼ cup cold water
Garnish: mint leaf, berries or grated chocolate (optional)
Oil a glass pie dish, bowl or four to six ramekins sufficient to hold 3 cups of liquid.
Heat 1 cup of the cream with the sugar until small bubbles form on the sides of the pan, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla pod (optional) or vanilla extract. Meanwhile, sprinkle the gelatin over cold water in a small metal cup or pan and let it develop into a sponge. After it is firm to the touch, carefully melt the gelatin over gentle heat. Stir the dissolved gelatin into the warm cream, then stir in the remaining cold cream.
To speed its settling, place over a pan of ice water and stir with a spatula, scraping sides and bottom, until the mixture is chilled and nearly set. Pour into the prepared dish or dishes. Refrigerate 30 minutes or until completely set. Caution: If not stirred over ice it may take up to 8 hours.
With fingers or a rubber spatula, gently pull the dessert away from the edge of the dish to "catch an air bubble," which will allow it to separate slightly from the dish. Put a very lightly oiled serving plate on the mold and flip it over. Give the mold a shake to release the panna cotta onto the plate. You may center the dessert on the plate by angling it slightly until it slides into the desired position.
Serve plain or garnished. If refrigerating before serving, cover loosely with plastic wrap. It will last 2 days in the refrigerator.
Variation: Sliced and lightly sugared ripe strawberries are an ideal accompaniment. Blueberries and raspberries are a close second.
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 14 cookbooks, including the James Beard award-winning “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com.