Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberries   Recipe
Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberries

By Wolfgang Puck

I can't wait for Sunday mornings, when my youngest son, two-and-a-half-year-old Oliver, and I go to our local farmers' market. I'm teaching him how to pick out the best strawberries, and how important it is to use his nose as much as his eyes.

We look for beautifully ripe, uniformly red berries without a hint of hard white or green flesh around the stems that indicates they were picked too soon. Strawberries don't continue to ripen very well once they're off the vine.

Oliver and I also sniff the air to help us find those with the sweetest perfume. Our favorite variety right now one called Mara des Bois, a French relative of wild woodland strawberries, which was introduced to America almost two decades ago. But there are so many other good kinds, too numerous and region-specific to mention. Just follow Oliver's and my strategy and use your nose!

Once you get your strawberries home, eat them within a day of purchase. It's wise to keep the berries at room temperature, since the refrigerator's cold can mute their flavor.

I have a hard time keeping Oliver from eating the berries straight out of their little baskets, a problem many of us grownups have, too. But I've found the perfect solution. I promise to use them in his favorite dessert.

One of the first food words he learned was "panna cotta," literally "cooked cream" in Italian, referring to a custard-like, but egg-free, dessert of sweetened cream thickened with gelatin. Whenever my wife and I take our boys out to dinner at a trattoria and I ask Oliver if he wants ice cream, he looks at me sternly and says, "No, no, no, Papa! Pan-na cot-ta!"

I don't blame him. Refreshingly cool, smooth, and silken, panna cotta is one of the best desserts for summer or at any time. And it's so easy. Flavored with a touch of vanilla, it's a perfect complement to fresh summer berries. In the recipe here, I also drizzle on some balsamic vinegar -- the good-quality, well-aged kind, almost as thick as syrup -- to provide a touch of acidity to counterpoint the fruity sweetness and creaminess. Add a mint garnish and the results look like a dessert version of the classic Italian Caprese salad of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil.

As summer goes on, try this dessert with other berries or slices of juicy peach or nectarine. That way, you'll never have to say, "No panna cotta!"

Vanilla Panna Cotta With Balsamic Summer Strawberries Recipe

Serves 4

Recipe Ingredients

1-1/2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1-1/2 packets unflavored gelatin, dissolved in 3 tablespoons room-temperature tap water

3/4 cup cold milk

Pinch of salt

1 pound fresh ripe strawberries

1/4 cup good-quality aged balsamic vinegar

Fresh mint leaves, for garnish

Recipe Preparation

For the panna cotta, put the cream, sugar, and vanilla in a saucepan over medium heat. Heat, stirring occasionally, just until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is warm but not yet boiling. Remove the pan from the heat.

Sprinkle and stir the gelatin into the saucepan until the gelatin has dissolved. Briefly stir in the cold milk and the salt, just until combined.

Pour the mixture into 4 individual-serving dessert ramekins, each about 3/4 cup. Loosely cover them with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and refrigerate until set, at least 3 hours or preferably overnight.

Before serving, unmold the panna cottas onto individual chilled dessert plates, if you like. To do this, fill a pan with hot tap water. Dip the base of a ramekin into the water for no more than about 5 seconds to loosen the panna cotta. Then, invert a chilled dessert plate over the ramekin and, holding them securely together, turn them over. Lift off the ramekin. If the panna cotta won't come out, run the tip of a small, sharp knife around the side of the dish and try briefly dipping the bottom of the ramekin in hot water again. Alternatively, simply place each ramekin on top of a serving plate.

Stem the strawberries and cut them into neat slices. Arrange the sliced strawberries on top of the panna cottas. Drizzle the berries on each plate with the aged balsamic vinegar. Garnish with mint and serve immediately.

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Desserts by the Yard

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Recipes: "Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberries "

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