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Welcome to My Modern Diary, an electronic journal filled with tales of nostalgic cuisine, wistful wanderings & personal recollections by Sarah Orman.

Vanilla panna cotta

Vanilla panna cotta


Perhaps one of my all time favorite desserts, panna cotta is incredibly simple to prepare and is the perfect partner for a variety of seasonal fruits. Accompanied with fresh berries in the height of summer or with pears poached with winter spices at Christmas, this Italian classic was always an impressive end to a dinner party in our home. In addition to being suitable year-round, this tasty little number can be prepared well ahead of time; need I say more as to why I love it so much?

Autumn Food Styling - October 24th, 2015

My love affair with Italian "cooked cream" began many years ago when I first attempted to make it at my parents' home. Prior to finding a suitable recipe, I had made the assumption that this delicious dessert required obscure ingredients or a time-consuming and complicated method. I couldn't have been more wrong.

After a hugely successful first try {thanks to James Martin} panna cotta became a firm favorite in our house; a go-to dessert that never failed to wow our dinner guests. That was until hubby became a part of the family.

A key ingredient in every panna cotta recipe, gelatin is absolutely crucial to the success of this dessert. A gelling agent found in powdered, sheets or granulated form, gelatin is typically derived from pork skin. To fill in the blanks here, I married a Muslim. Pork skin is most definitely not on the menu. I don't remember the exact moment the penny dropped, however, I do remember being devastated that panna cotta could no longer be a part of my showstopping repertoire.

For those of you who know me, you know very well that I don't take defeat lightly; I wasn't going to be beaten by this yummy custard! So, I set out to find an alternative to standard gelatin.

After a little research, I trawled the internet for advice on panna cotta made with agar agar {a vegetarian substitute}. I found several recipes and lots of information, however, not one of the featured images looked like the Italian cooked cream I'd come to love. Furthermore, the feedback on the algae-derived setting agent was somewhat negative.

None the less I gave it a shot, two Christmases ago. To this day, my family still laugh and tease me about how Christmas dinner was a total disaster that year; the panna cotta being the sloppy, runny, inedible grand finale to a festive spread that quite frankly I'd like to forget.

Almost two years since the agar agar fiasco and I was ready to try my hand at panna cotta again, this time using beef gelatin sheets that I found online at Pastry Chef Central. I have to add here that finding beef gelatin sheets vs. powder wasn't easy and I now have a supply fit for a busy restaurant pastry section, none the less, I was determined to fall in love once more with panna cotta.

I went back to my trusted James Martin recipe {with one or two small tweaks} and after carefully following every step of the method, I gingerly placed the moulds in the fridge to set overnight.

And yes! Hallelujah folks! We have success! A perfectly set panna cotta; silky smooth with a delicate wobble when removed from the tin. The texture is light and creamy and the flavor is subtle. Just as I remember from years ago when this Italian classic was a trusted favorite, this Muslim-friendly "cooked cream" is delicious accompanied by an array of seasonal fruits. In this instance, a rich red wine poached pear for autumn.

I'm so happy to once again have an easy show-stopping dessert fit for entertaining all year round, and because I'm a total perfectionist haunted by the Christmas dinner of 2013, I think I might be slipping a few beef gelatin sheets into my suitcase this holiday season to redeem myself... I smile at the thought of knowing my panna cotta will once again impress and hubby can lick the plate clean : )

Vanilla panna cotta
Recipe Type: Dessert
Author: Sarah Orman
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 8
  • 4 sheets of beef gelatin
  • 120ml whole milk
  • Zest of one orange
  • One vanilla pod, split and the seeds scraped out
  • 150g superfine or caster sugar
  • 1.2L heavy cream
  • 30ml good quality vodka {can be omitted if desired}
  1. Soak the gelatin in the cold milk and leave to one side.
  2. Place the sugar, orange zest, vanilla pod and seeds in a large pan with 800ml of the heavy cream. Bring to the boil gently. Reduce the heat and simmer until the mixture is reduced by a third {approximately 10-15 minutes}.
  3. While the cream is reducing, remove the gelatin from the milk and place the milk in a small pan to warm gently. When the milk is warm, add the soaked gelatin and stir to dissolve.
  4. Add the milk and gelatin mixture to the reduced cream then pass through a sieve and leave to cool.
  5. As the cream is cooling, lightly whip the remaining 300ml of heavy cream.
  6. Gently fold the whipped cream into the cooled cream mixture together with the vodka.
  7. Pour the mixture into a large measuring jug, stir thoroughly and pour into moulds. I use 4" tart tins, which makes 8 panna cotta. Be sure to stir the mixture thoroughly here, you want an even distribution of vanilla seeds.
  8. Place moulds in the fridge to set overnight.
  9. When ready to serve, dip the moulds very briefly in hot water to loosen the panna cotta. Turn out onto individual plates and garnish with seasonal fruits.
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