All Photos: Wendy Goodfriend
My brother and I started making this dessert years ago, seeking a light but still decadent end of the meal that felt worthy of the holidays but wouldn’t send you into a complete food coma. We don’t make it every year, but every year that we do make it, it’s a huge hit.
The best panna cotta is just barely held together cream. It’s made of simple ingredients—usually cream, milk, sugar, gelatin, and some kind of flavoring—so use the nicest quality organic cream you can find. Straus or Clover organic is always a great choice in my book.
There are a lot of things I like about this dish: it’s relatively easy to make, you don’t need to turn on the oven, and you can make it ahead of time. Also, it’s easily personalized, as you can pair it with just about anything, from fresh berries, any-kind-of-fruit coulis, or drizzles of caramel or chocolate sauce. You can serve it with or without cookies (crumbly little squares of shortbread are always good), or just on its own.
This version, served with caramelized blood oranges, not only looks amazing and sophisticated, but it tastes incredible: like a grown-up creamsicle. I don’t know about you, but this is going on my holiday table.
Recipe: Vanilla Panna Cotta with Caramelized Blood Oranges
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 2 1/4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Pinch kosher salt
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the panna cotta:
For the caramelized blood oranges:
- 4 blood oranges*
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon light corn syrup
*Note: If you can’t find blood oranges, which are in season in the winter, you can use oranges or tangerines. Make sure to remove any seeds before caramelizing.
To make the panna cotta, pour the milk into a heatproof bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the surface. Let stand for about 10 minutes to hydrate the gelatin. Fill a larger bowl half full with ice and cold water (this is your ice bath). Have ready six 1/2-cup custard cups or ramekins.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan, stir together the cream, sugar, and salt. Using a small knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pod and add to the saucepan along with the pod. Cook over medium heat, just until the cream starts to steam (you don’t want it to boil). Let cool slightly, then slowly add the cream mixture to the gelatin mixture, stirring constantly. Remove the vanilla bean pod and stir in the vanilla extract. Set the bowl into the ice bath and stir gently until the mixture cools and starts to thicken, about 10 minutes.
Pour the mixture into a measuring pitcher, then divide it evenly between the custard cups. Gently tap each cup on the counter to remove excess bubbles. Cover each cup with a small piece of plastic wrap, making sure the plastic wrap doesn’t touch the surface of the panna cotta. Refrigerate until chilled and set, about 4 hours or up to overnight.
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To make the caramelized oranges, using a sharp knife, slice the ends of each orange off to reveal the flesh. Place the orange upright on a cutting board and cut downward to remove all the peel and white pith, following the contours of the fruit. Cut the orange into slices, place in a shallow baking dish, and set aside.
In a saucepan, stir together the sugar, 1/3 cup water, and the corn syrup. Cook over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally, until the sugar melts and turns deep golden brown. (Using a pastry brush dipped in water, wash down the sides of the pan a few times in the beginning to make sure all the grains of sugar are in the boiling liquid.) Carefully pour the caramel over the orange slices. Set aside until room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours (this allows the caramel to soften and turn into a sauce).
To serve, pour boiling water into a small, wide-mouthed bowl. Dip each custard cup into the boiling water for a few seconds, then invert the panna cotta onto a plate (you may need to use your fingers or a small knife to help nudge the custard out of the cup). Serve with a few slices of the caramelized oranges and some of the caramel sauce.