My little niece Beattie tasted cream for the first time this christmas. Her eyes widened as she spooned the lactic loveliness into her little mouth. ‘It’s called Cream‘ my sister explained to her daughter. Bea looked down at her bowl, then up at her Mum, ‘Cream‘ she repeated – relishing the new word almost as much as her pudding – before turning her attention back to the task in hand. She carefully scraped her bowl clean, her spoon skills and healthy appetite inciting a rumble of approval from the gaggle of relatives, before returning her gaze to her Mum. Then, while nudging her bowl towards the cream jug, her face full of expectation and her brow furrowed with the concentration required to link two words together, she said earnestly ‘More cream‘.
Quite right too I thought, ‘More cream’ and not just on our jelly! ‘More cream generally’, preferably double-double, extra thick, luscious, glorious cream.
Cream is one of the things I miss.! Not that you can’t find cream in Rome! Of course you can and I’ll come to that in a moment, it’s just not the same. I miss English cream. I miss shops that dedicate a large portion of their chilled section to tubs, cartons and pots of cream: single cream for my porridge, pouring cream for my pie, whipping cream for my sundae, double cream for my fool, extra-thick double cream for my crumble clotted cream for my scones, clot-your-arteries cream for my trifle, custard-yellow Jersey cream straight from the pot, cream scream cream
I’m sure if I lived further up Italy’s boot, where olive groves are replaced by green pastures, I’d find it easier to get my hands on more cream. But here in Rome – unless of course I’m missing a cream emporium hidden up some backstreet – the choice is pretty limited. There are little cartons of good panna fresca (fresh cream) from Rome central dairy, cartons of panna da montare (whipping cream, which to be honest can be rather lusterless) and tubs of the luxuriously thick Mascarpone.
Not that this limited selection stops Romans making one of Italy’s most famous (you could say ubiquitous) simplest and I think – when made properly – nicest puddings: panna cotta. Panna cotta, which literally translated means cooked cream, is not, as its name implies, cooked. Cream, with maybe a little added milk, is gently warmed with sugar and often a vanilla pod, then mixed with softened gelatin, moulded and chilled. The resulting pudding, a delicate set cream to be turned out onto a plate, looks rather like a smooth, squat, milky-white sandcastle, which – and this is the key apparently – quivers and ‘wobbles like a woman’s breast’. Any complaints about the use of the word sandcastle should be forwarded to my personal assistant.
The wobble, the quiver, means the panna cotta is softly set. It should tremble as you bring it to the table, your spoon should sink easily into the milky-white mound. The texture should be soft, smooth, silky and untroubled. The taste simple and clean, delicate and dairy, of cream sweetened with sugar and flavoured with real vanilla.
For such a simple pudding, there is rather a lot of panna cotta advice to be found. I’ve done my fair share of experimenting over the years, most recently inspired by the terrific Felicity Cloake. But a few weeks ago I reminded myself that I lived in Rome and should, if you’ll pardon the cliché, do as the Romans do. Which is, according to Octavio who makes the panna cotta I eat almost every week at Volpetti più, very straightforward. You warm panna fresca with a vanilla pod. Then you add sugar – according to your taste – and some softened gelatin. Finally, Octavio’s secret, you stir in a little whipped cream before diving the mixture between your pots, ramekins or glasses and chilling. To serve, you dip the bottom of each pot briefly in boiling water and then invert the panna cotta onto a plate.
Almost all the culinary advice I receive from Italians, even for the simplest of recipes, comes with the requisite suggestion: practice. And so it was with the panna cotta advice Octavio gave me while we leaned up against the bar in Barberini one particularly grizzly Wednesday afternoon a few weeks ago. Also when Italians share a recipe with you - and Octavio was no exception - it’s likely to be dotted with variables and gestures that suggest ‘Some‘ or ‘To taste’ or rather confusingly ‘Enough’. This is because they know and understand that ingredients, whether they be tomatoes, potatoes, butter, flour, cream, vanilla vary dramatically from kitchen to kitchen, place to place, season to season. That what may seem sweet to one person, is not to another. That gelatin can be unpredictable. That wobbles are personal.
With the spirit of Italian cooking advice in mind, I suggest you treat the recipe below as a template. I use panna fresca which is technically single cream but seems a little richer, so you might like to experiment with both single and double cream or even a mix – again see Felicity. Octavio was vague about sugar, he made a tipping gesture which was charming but not very helpful. A bit of trail and error ensued. I err on the not-so-sweet side so find 80g of sugar (I prefer icing sugar) is about right. Vanilla, I love it, you might not. If I didn’t have the real thing I wouldn’t bother with vanilla essence though. Gelatin is pesky stuff. You need enough to set your cream with the requisite wobble, but not too much as to seize it into the consistency of a car tyre. I do hope you can find gelatin sheets - the powder is a pest and agar agar just odd – you need 3 in my book. If you really can’t find sheets and have hunted tirelessly to no avail, I’ll send you some ! Seriously, I’m that committed to set puddings, E-mail me your address.
Even though panna cotta looks very pretty served in a glass with layer of fruit sauce or syrup poured on top, I like my mine turned out – in all its milky-white and wobbly glory – on a plate. I am happy to eat it just so, but really like panna cotta with some fruit or even better, a spoonful of fruit sauce. The idea of caramel or chocolate sauce might seem appealing, but I think it all ends up being too much, cloying and sickly. Panna cotta pairs well with sharp, edgy, acidic fruit. Sour cherries, blackberries, cranberries, black currants or red currants cooked with a tiny bit of sugar all make good panna cotta companions, offsetting and accentuating the creaminess and looking wonderfully dramatic, like red lips and pale skin, next to your innocent white pudding.
Adapted from Octavio at Volpetti più’s recipe
Makes 4 pots (at a stretch 6, but who wants to stretch?)
- 400ml fresh single cream
- 1 vanilla pod
- 3 leaves/sheets of gelatin
- 100ml whipped cream
- 80g – 100g caster or icing sugar
- You need 4 panna cotta pots or ramekins (the ramekins need to be lightly greased with vegetable oil). If you don’t want to turn the panna cotta out use 4 glasses .
- Pour the single cream into a pan. Use a small sharp knife to split the vanilla bean lengthways, then scrape the seeds from inside the bean. Add the seeds and beans to the saucepan. Warm the cream gently over a low flame but do not boil. Remove from the heat and set aside for 10 minutes for the vanilla to infuse the milk
- Soak the gelatin leaves in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes or until they are very soft and floppy.
- Remove the vanilla pod from the pan. Put the pan back on a low flame, add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Squeeze the water from the gelatin leaves and add to the pan. Stir until the gelatine has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the whipped cream.
- Divide the mixture between your pots or glasses and chill in the fridge for at least three hours. To turn out, dip the base of the pots briefly in boiling water and then invert onto a plates.
- Serve just so or with a spoonful of sharp fruit sauce or coulis.