This basic recipe is adapted from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper. Once you’ve made it a couple of times, feel free to play around: I often use yogurt—goat or cow—for the sour cream, add a little buttermilk, or change up the flavorings. You can even experiment with the amount of gelatin—start with quarter-teaspoon increments—if you want it slightly firmer. My favorite toppings are simply macerated fresh berries, lightly cooked rhubarb, or poached quince, if I can find them. When there’s not much fresh fruit available, I love to poach sour, California dried apricots in a mix of simple syrup, white wine, spices—cardamom, cinnamon, clove—a little fresh ginger, orange, honey, and a tiny dash of orange blossom water. A few pistachios on top look beautiful.
- Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water. Let stand for 5 minutes. It will absorb the water and look like a gummy. In a large saucepan, warm the cream with the sugar, salt, and vanilla bean or extract over medium-high heat. Do not let it boil, it just needs to get hot. Stir in the gelatin gummy until thoroughly dissolved. Take the cream off the heat and cool for about 5 minutes.
- Put the sour cream or yogurt in a medium bowl. Gently whisk in the warm cream a little at a time until smooth. Taste for sweetness. Rinse a serving bowl or individual cups (I like teacups-you can get 6-8 out of this) and add panna cotta; the water will help the mixture unmold if you decide to do that. Chill at least 4 hours, and up to 24, but not more than that, or it can get ice-boxy and ruin the texture. Either way, cover very well to prevent smells getting in. That's it.
- To serve, either unmold by packing the molds in hot towels—or dunking in a bowl of hot water-and then turning each out onto a dessert plate, or serve in their containers. I don't usually bother with unmolding, as I find it defeats the effortlessness of the whole thing and looks more generous in a big bowl anyway, but unmolding is also very satisfying. With this, I like to serve fruit: in the summer, strawberries or raspberries macerated with a little sugar; in the spring, rhubarb, in the fall and winter, quince or poached, dried Blenheim apricots. You want something slightly tart to cut the creaminess of the panna cotta—or I do, anyway.
- For poached quince (my favorite): peel, cure, and slice quinces into eighths. Be careful—they're very hard. And try to get out all the dry, woody bits around the core. I use either a melon baller or the end of a potato peeler. While you prepare the fruit, make a syrup (over medium-high heat) of roughly a 6:1 ratio of water to sugar. I usually throw in a vanilla bean and a bit of lemon peel, but you can play with cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, a couple of cloves or star anise pods, and a bit of ginger-maybe honey for a medieval effect. Turn the heat down to a simmer and poach gently for an hour or so, until tender—this may take longer, depending on the fruit's hardness. They will turn a pretty pink. Chill in syrup until ready to use.
Sadie Stein is a writer based in New York.