More cream

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.


Panna cotta

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.
  • .


Filed under cream, food, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes

35 responses to “More cream

  1. laura

    Have begun to await the middle of the month, more or less, with great anticipation of a new post here, and today was a wonderful way to start out a cold, windy Monday. Thank you, for your writing, your photos and your recipes. Luca just seems to grow MORE adorable. Thank you also for somehow finding the time to write.

    • rachel

      What a nice comment to find on a cold windy Tuesday! Luca is pretty adorable but at this precise moment very very noisy too. hoping to get back here rather more than once a month – thanks for being so patient.

      • laura

        I think it’s rather amazing you post at all with a small child keeping you busy, along with everything else. besides, the wait is always well worth it! My suggestion for “wobbly”: tremolante.

  2. Lovely story about Beattie and Luca is getting more gorgeous. I am too scared to make panna cotta. My clumsiness is not conducive to good cooked cream I am sure.

  3. I have always envied you Brits your many varieties of cream, just the names are enticing. There is something about the sound of double cream and clotted cream that makes my mouth water. If it makes you feel any better, I do live closer to the Alps and know of no other varieties than the ones you find in Rome. Panna da cucina and panna da montare is all I find in the shops…

    • rachel

      So where can you find really good cream in Italy? – Maybe we need to climb an alp, find a cow and milk it ourselves.
      Yes, clotted cream is as luscious as it sounds.

  4. leduesorelle

    Thank-you for sharing the wonderful moment of your niece discovering something new. Your description of what it’s like to have Italians give cooking directions was perfect! Ma, come si vuole dire “wobbly” in italiano?

    • rachel

      I just typed wobbly into google translate and it tells me the Italian word is wobbly. Well, that can’t be right. Wobble is oscillare but that doesn’t sound very breast like. I will research this important issue and get back to you!

  5. Well, those of us (like me) who do not live in England have the same problem with cream as you do. I live in NYC and can, of course, get decent cream. And when I go away upstate, I can get better than decent since there is a dairy just down the road from the house I stay in. But double cream? Forget it. It wouldn’t be so bad if my mother had not been English and had I not spent lots of my youth in England eating all the glorious wonders of things with English cream. Sigh. Anyway, not only do I really like your recipes, I have recently discovered Felicity Cloake and just finished reading Perfect from cover to cover, so this is next on my list of new recipes to try. As always, thank you.

    • rachel

      I’m glad we share an English cream passion – I think you have to grow up eating it, to have consumed thick cream in the guiltless and greedily joyful way that often only children can to be a true lover. I think Felicity is terrific, such a fantastic idea for a newspaper column – the book is on my list!

  6. Hi Rach, your ode to English creams has me captivated–and a bit envious.
    Lately I’ve been making this treat in part with Greek Yogurt–nice tang. True Panna Cotta, as you have so beautifully presented, is about excellent cream achieving the right shimmer and wobble.

    • rachel

      Shimmer – perfect word. Also the sounds of the greek yogurt spiked panna cotta (I have nearly as big a soft spot for really thick creamy greek yogurt as I do for cream)

  7. s

    oh Rach, such a lovely post. you have just reminded me of uni days when we would buy sticky toffee pud’ from M&S and then have it with – triple cream! how i miss all these creams you speak of. love the panna cotta recipe. i cringe when i see chocolate and other ‘bastardised’ versions of panna cotta outside of Italy. ah, Octavio from Volpetti piu’- what nostalgia you have stirred up for me. beautiful post, as always. x s

    • rachel

      I know that toffee pudding! Triple cream, now that sounds scandalously good. I will be raiding M&S when I get back. I love that you know Volpetti and can imagine the panna cotta there (it’s quite hard to describe Volpetti P don’t you think, so plain and canteen like and yet so very very good).

  8. Panna cotta is one of my favorite desserts. I just love the simple goodness of it. The ingredient of the week at la Domestique is rose, so I would add a splash of rosewater to my pudding. Lovely post!

    • rachel

      I really like your idea of adding Rosewater or maybe orangeflower water. I have just been reading a piedmontese recipe for panna cotta which includes peach brandy which is rather tempting. Simple goodness – that is such a good way to put it.

  9. Anything with fresh vanilla pods is a real winner

  10. your personal assistant is adorable!
    and now I want cream, proper double cream, and scones with clotted cream, and panna cotta, and custard. oh god, I’ll stop now…

  11. Janine

    Oh my heavens. I think I will be making this soon. I make a lovely lemon posset with heavy cream for dessert usually once or twice a month – so simple, just simmer cream with icing sugar to taste, stir in lemon juice once it’s off the heat, pour into a vessel of your choice and chill. There is no wobble however, just creamy, tangy, thick richness, which is well and nice, don’t get me wrong…but I didn’t realize wobble had been missing from my life.

    I’m not sure sheets of gelatin are sold in British Columbia, I’ve always used the little packets, but this has put me on a mission!

    One stupid question I have, however, is about the whipped cream. Do you mean heavy cream that has all ready been whipped? And if so, do you measure the 100 mL before or after whipping it?

    Thank you for the wobbly inspiration!

    • rachel

      Hello janine,

      I adore lemon posset (I think it is the most fantastic name for a pudding) but haven’t made it for years – you have inspired me and it may well be a post in the near future.
      RE the whipped cream – at volpetti they use 100ml (measured before whipping) of panna da montare which is whipping cream. I used the same. You could use whipping cream or double cream and yes, measure before whipping. Send me your address and I will send you some sheet gelatin!

      • Janine

        Hello Rachel,

        I’m so excited to meet another person who knows about lemon posset! It is a wonderful name, and you SHOULD post about it and spread the posset-joy to world!

        Thank you for the clarification. I made this this morning before heading to work, as a special treat for tonight after supper, and I really do hope they set up with the correct mammary-like wobble. I was lucky enough to find some sheet gelatin in a specialty kitchen store, however they only sold it in ridiculously large quantities. I am now set for gelatin for life. The wobbling possibilities!

        Thank you, however, for your very kind offer. 🙂

        I can’t wait for your next post!

  12. “…like red lips and pale skin, next to your innocent white pudding.”


  13. I’m so used to “enough” as a measurement, having learned to cook from mothers and grandmothers and the like… this is delightful and the photos that star the drizzle of red are absolutely hypnotic. and I totally clicked on your personal assistant’s link and got the best giggle out of it. what a charming assistant 😉

    • rachel

      Very charming and extremely helpful too when food needs to be thrown on the floor. I am getting used to the ‘enough’ advice and coming to the conclusion it is often the best measurement if you are patient and prepared to practice and make recipes your own.

  14. Panna cotta is a dessert out of a dream – in my opinion, there isn’t a better dessert! This is a lovely post and it’s making me hungry. I make panna cotta from a recipe I learned from Delphina, a restaurant in San Francisco in California. They replace about 1/3 of the cream with buttermilk and add 1 tbsp of lemon juice. My own variation is to serve it with rhubarb cooked down with sugar and a whole vanilla bean. I think I’d better go buy some rhubarb right now, come to think of it! Thanks for a great post

    • rachel

      I totally agree. I like the sound of your recipe and I will try (I am always open to panna cotta advice). I really really like the sound of your panna cotta companion, the rhubarb (one of my favorite fruits and sadly lacking in my life here in Rome). nice comment thank you.

  15. May Rosenthal

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog and am enjoying indulgently aquiainting myself with your recipes and writing (whilst I should be writing myself!)

    I remember being given fruit salad for pudding at my parents’ friend’s house one Sunday lunchtime and thinking this really didn’t count as pudding, until I saw a bowl of thickly whipped cream being set down on the table. Having dutifully eaten up my fruit, I slowly, luxuriously spooned in the the cream and finally sat with the last, gloriously large spoonful rolling around in my mouth until shock horror… I realised I was going to sneeze. Unable to swallow in time, my eyes bulged and I sprayed the dining room with the precious stuff. I still can’t believe the injustice of not being allowed another spoon to replace that last, saved and savoured one!

    • rachel

      Hello May, so glad to have you reading along and I can quite appreciate your horror – cheated of cream, how terrible. I hope you are now back and writing productively Rx

  16. Can panna cotta be frozen successfully? Anyone tried?

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