Now eaten around the world as well in most of Italy, its origins are mysterious. I have read on a couple of Piedmont blogs in Italian that it is definitely originally from that region, and would say this seems very likely as the Piedmont region, bordering France as it does, is the only one where cream occasionally features in the cuisine.
In general in Italy there is a belief that milk is intended for the nutrition of babies and young animals, that milk is difficult for the adult stomach to digest, and the same goes for cream. This is why Italians tend not to drink Cappuccino after meals and why there are no "cream sauces" for pasta in Italy - at most, here in Emila-Romagna, just a a tablespoon or two of precious cream is used to bind a pasta sauce serving 4 to 6 people.
The brief references to its origin that I have come across, say that it was in invented in the early 1900s by a lady of Hungarian origin living in the Langhe area of Piedmont. Though in my Piedmont cookbook the recipe (La Panna Cotta del Antico Piemonte) is said to have been known in the region since the Middle ages.
Be that as it may.........I like my Panna Cotta simple: white and with berries, at most with some other fruit. I do not like it with chocolate or caramel sauce, as it is often served in Italy, and none of the many variations created by chefs and restaurants in Italy and beyond stand up to the original for me. Above is my favourite summer version, with tiny wild mountain blueberries.
In winter I might serve it with Bologna's famous wild sour cherries in syrup, the Amarena Fabbri as above, in late summer with grapes, in the fall with persimmons, but I love it most of all right now, in fresh berry season! Read on for the recipe.
La Panna Cotta con Le Fragole
Italian Set Cream with Strawberries
Makes 6 portions in 75 ml capacity moulds
Note: Panna Cotta is all about the texture. It should be lightly wobbly not rigid, not what I call "rubber bullet Panna Cotta". It gets that way if you make it too far ahead, if it is too long in the fridge. You can make it up to a day ahead, and if you do, place plastic food film close to the surface once it has set well, to prevent a leathery skin forming on what will be the base. And make sure to remove it from the fridge 10 to 20 minutes before serving if it has been in the fridge over night. I also try to use the least amount of gelatin possible - the further ahead you make it the less you need.
Rich and thick so-called "Panna Cottas", where you boil and reduce the cream or thicken it by whipping simply miss the point of the light delicacy of this sweet, which slips down so easily even at the end of a big meal. These techniques change it to something else, something I do not recognise as Panna Cotta - at least that's my opionion for what it's worth!
For the Panna Cotta:
360 ml cream - we only have one kind of fresh cream in Italy, it is a whippable pouring cream
90 ml milk, any kind
85 g sugar
3 x 2 g sheets of leaf gelatine or 1 tbsp. powdered gelatine
Put the sheets of leaf gelatine to soak in cold water, in a small bowl, until they become very soft and jelly like in consistency. Do not do this too early as the gelatin leaves can get too soft in which case they'll give their "gelling power" to the soaking water and your Panna Cotta will never set. For powdered gelatine, sprinkle on top of 45 ml / 3 tbsp. cold water until it becomes spongy and foamy.
Gently heat the milk, sugar and cream together, to dissolve sugar. Be very careful not to let the mixture come to the boil. Though the Italian name translates as "cooked cream", the cream is barely "cooked" and it absolutely must not boil.
Squeeze out the leaf gelatine and add it (or the spongy powdered gelatine) to the milk/cream mixture off the heat. Stir at once to dissolve the gelatine completely. Allow the cream/milk mixture to cool until it starts to set a little, by which time it should be just tepid.
Using cold water, rinse out some small smooth moulds, ideally metal ones, and shake excess out. Fill them carefully with the mixture - you can fill to the top - and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or until firmly set.
To turn out for serving, loosen all round the top with the tip of a thin bladed sharp knife - do not poke down, you only need to release the top rim. Place a dessert plate on top of each mould and up-end the sweet on to the plate. You may need to tap firmly on the bottom and to give the mould a very firm shake or two. When placing the plate on top, position it carefully so the Panna Cotta "lands" exactly where you want it to, centrally or a little to one side. You will not be able to change its position once it is on the plate.
If tapping is not sufficient to turn out the sweet, you may need to dip each mould briefly in hot water (or wrap it in a cloth dipped in very hot water and wrung out). Ease it out carefully with the help of a thin bladed metal spatula or knife if necessary.
I do not like the dipping method. Usually I do not dip long enough the first time, for fear of getting a melted effect on the outside of the sweet and I end up having to dip twice with the ensuing melted effect guaranteed! So I recommend using throw away alufoil cups. Or else what I do now is warm the Panna Cotta in its container by rubbing betwen my palms - I find that is sufficient to ease it out without any dribbling.
12 - 16 small juicy strawberries*, total weight about 120 g,
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice,
fresh mint in sprigs
*or substitute other berries: raspberries, blueberries, wild woodland strawberries
Wash and hull the strawberries and reserve the best looking ones for slicing for the garnish.
Place the rest in a small saucepan with the sugar, a good squeeze of lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons. of water.
Cook until softened - the fruit should look greyish while the syrup should be shiny and brightly coloured - and then strain to leave the cooked fruit behind. Do not be tempted to push the fruit through - I save it and have it on buttered toast - or your beautiful translucent coulis will turn cloudy and opaque.
Spoon some strawberry sauce round each Panna Cotta, and garnish with the reserved sliced strawberries and sprigs of fresh mint.
Here are three photos of other garnishes for Panna Cotta made at different times of year by my cooking class guests. The first is with frosted green and red grapes and a slightly jellied grape syrup:
An autumn favourite, with sieved persimmons and persimmon "petals". In Italian the fruits are called cachi (pronounced like "khaki") and you need the soft squashy kind that are ready to eat only when they have burst their skin and look like they are ready to throw away, not before.
And an early summer variation with simmered cherries and their syrup, with tart little red currants and a basil sprig for garnish.