The beauty of Panna Cotta is in its remarkable simplicity. It's made with just a few ingredients - milk, cream, sugar, and gelatin - and on the surface, appears quite plain, until you eat a spoonful. It's light, silky and cool with a fresh dairy taste. Panna Cotta translates as "cooked cream" in Italian. A decade ago, we never heard much about this ethereal dessert. Now, it often supplants Crème Brûlée on dessert menus. It pairs beautifully with virtually any fruit and the contrasts of flavor and color, especially with berries, are stunning. Because Panna Cotta is less rich and not as sweet as other desserts, it's refreshing after a heavy meal or during the summer when our appetites are not so rapacious. It's elegant enough to serve at a dinner party but because it's so easy to prepare, it's equally welcome after a weeknight supper on a warm summer night.
Summer berries are ideal with Panna Cotta - raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, or blueberries. I like a mix - whatever berries are at their peak at the market. Be sure to rinse the berries in cool water shortly before you use them. You can use a colander, or my favorite method - in a salad spinner. Raspberries are particularly fragile. After rinsing, gently spread the raspberries on several layers of paper towels to dry them.
VANILLA BUTTERMILK PANNA COTTA WITH BERRIES
2-1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup sugar, preferably superfine
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon non-iodized salt
3 cups berries, rinsed and dried
Coat 8 6-ounce custard cups or ramekins with cooking spray. Set the cups on a baking sheet. Combine the milk and cream in a medium saucepan. Sprinkle the gelatin over the mixture and let it stand for 10 minutes. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, over low heat until the gelatin dissolves (about 7-8 minutes). Add the sugar and salt. Increase the heat to medium and stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add the buttermilk and vanilla. Divide the mixture among the custard cups. Cover the entire baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled - at least 6 hours or overnight.
When you are ready to serve the berries, cover each custard cup with a dessert plate and invert. Divide the berries among each serving. If the Panna Cotta doesn't slip right out, (1) run a thin knife around the edge of the custard cups and/or (2) rinse a kitchen towel in very hot water and wring. Set the cups on the warm damp towel for a few seconds.
Note: It's important not to add too much gelatin. The Panna Cotta should set up but not be as firm as a gelatin mold.