- Course: Dessert
- Skill Level: Moderate
- Cost: Inexpensive
- Favorited: 6 Times
Can be made ahead of time.
On our honeymoon in Italy, in a small city called Cuneo, at a restaurant called Osteria della Chiocciola, my husband and I had one of the best desserts of our journey, a panna cotta that tasted like the essence of cream. Though set, the custard seemed not to have the jiggly texture of gelatin, and when I asked in broken Italian how they made it, they described a cooked custard made with egg whites, milk, cream, and sugar. I was determined to make my own, though I have never quite figured out how to achieve the creamy flavor solely with egg whites and no gelatin. This version uses as little gelatin as possible, just enough to bind the thickened egg white custard.
Bloom the gelatin:
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 5 teaspoons of water and set aside for 10 minutes. The gelatin will soak up all the water and expand into a gummy paste.
Infuse the cream:
Run a paring knife down the center of the vanilla bean. Split it open with your fingers and use the knife to scrape out the tiny black seeds into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring the cream, the milk, ¼ cup of the sugar, and the vanilla pod and seeds (or vanilla extract, if you are using it) to a simmer. Remove from the heat, cover, and let the mixture steep for at least 15 minutes.
Make the egg white custard (see the Note on cooking a stirred custard and testing for doneness):
In a small bowl whisk together the remaining ¼ cup sugar, salt, and egg whites. Slowly, using a ladle, whisk some of the hot milk into the egg white mixture to warm it. Gradually pour the warmed egg white mixture into the hot milk, whisking constantly as you pour.
Cook the custard over medium heat, stirring continuously and scraping the bottom with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon. Remove from the heat and add about ½ cup of the cooked custard to the gelatin and whisk until the gelatin dissolves. Add this small amount of custard back to the remaining custard and whisk the two together. Strain the custard through a fine-mesh strainer. Chill the custard over an ice bath until it comes to room temperature. Remove the vanilla bean with a fork. Rinse it, dry it, and save it for another use.
Pour the custard into the molds:
Pour the custard into the molds and refrigerate for at least 6 hours to allow the gelatin to set. At the restaurant we dip the 2-ounce plastic ketchup cups in hot water to release the custard from the sides of the plastic, unmolding them onto dessert plates. It is also nice to set the custard into small decorative dishes.
Serve these custards with fresh passion-fruit, macerated strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries. Peaches, nectarines, and apricots are also wonderful. Any thin crispy cookie adds a nice crunch to this luxurious, refreshing, creamy vanilla custard.
Herb-infused or Spiced Panna Cotta:
You can infuse the cream with any number of spices or herbs. Use 4 fresh lemon verbena leaves, a stalk of lemon grass, 3 fresh bay leaves, a small bunch of fresh basil, 1 tablespoon of any good citrus zest, 3 sticks of cinnamon, 4 star anise, 1 tablespoon of aniseed, 12 cardamom pods (crushed), or ½ cup of toasted coconut to infuse the hot milk and cream. Allow the flavors to steep for at least 15 minutes before cooking the custard.
Storage: The custards keep, refrigerated, for 3 days.