Big panna cotta: the perfect dessert for summer entertaining

A few weeks ago, I had some friends over for an Italian meal that ended with panna cotta for dessert. The day was so hot that I wanted something cold and ready in the fridge when it was time to serve. But the process wasn’t as simple as I’d hoped. While my friends chatted, I was plating dessert — dipping a knife in hot water and running it around the inside of individual ramekins to loosen the edges of the panna cotta, then plopping each serving onto a plate. After the third time, I thought, “This sucks.” The panna cotta tasted great, but the tedium of serving it was annoying. Plus, I thought, who under the age of 40 even has ramekins anymore?

What I love so much about panna cotta is that it’s essentially fancy Jell-O. Of course, if you bring Jell-O out to your guests at the end of a dinner party, they might look around at each other with polite side-eyes. But if you bring out panna cotta, everyone oohs and aahs. They don’t realize that panna cotta is really just gelatin-thickened cream (i.e. dairy Jell-O). It’s convenient because you don’t have to really cook anything — just warm up the cream to dissolve the gelatin — and it sets up in the fridge hours before you need it so it’s ready whenever you want.

But the necessity to make it in individual-serving ramekins typically means that the dessert works better in restaurants than at home. In keeping with the convivial style of serving entertaining meals at home, I wanted to make a family-style panna cotta that negates any need of a ramekin. Giant scoops in a bowl, covered in fruit or a sauce — who would even care that it’s not ramekin-shaped anyway?

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Ben, why not just make a large flan or crème caramel?” Those desserts tick the large-format, cold and ready-early boxes, but you have to bake them in precarious water baths, which can often be an exhausting prospect for beginner home cooks. Plus, turning on the oven heats up the kitchen, something I don’t want in the middle of summer.

And again, you might say, “But Ben, have you ever heard of ice cream?” And sure, you can serve ice cream, but I don’t like to serve store-bought ice cream for a nice dinner party (for some meals it works, but not all, in my opinion). Yes, I could make the ice cream myself — which I’m fine with because I have an ice cream maker — but most people don’t, so again, panna cotta works better because it doesn’t need any special equipment.

The texture of panna cotta is also key for me in choosing it over a baked custard or ice cream. Most panna cottas in restaurants can be too tough or hard-set; I pride myself in making an iteration that gets the perfect Goldilocks texture, where the panna cotta can stand up as a solid but is smooth and luxurious when you spoon and eat it. One (obvious) way to achieve that perfect set is to use the right amount of gelatin. But another way is to reserve some of the cream in the recipe and whip it to soft peaks that I then fold into the rest of the flavored cream mixture. The panna cotta attains a texture that’s slightly foamy or fluffy, in addition to being delicately set.

Here’s one more trick: I add a healthy glug of liquor. It not only gives the panna cotta a boozy edge, it also helps with that soft-set texture. I pour the creamy concoction into a large, 9-by-13-inch or similar dish and let it sit in the fridge for at least 4 hours. But the beauty of panna cotta is that it can sit for at least 24 or even 48 hours so you can make it much farther ahead than you need it.

And because there are no ramekins to deal with this time, your absence from your dinner party lasts for only the couple seconds it takes to grab the dish from the fridge and bring it to the table. Everyone will still ooh and aah over it, and maybe you will too, knowing the amount of work you avoided with tiresome dishes to get just as good results.

Get the recipe:

Time20 minutes, plus 4 1/2 hours unattended

YieldsServes 8