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Panna cotta - can it be made without all that heavy cream?

pâté chinois Oct 24, 2008 10:55 AM

I'm making panna cotta (vanilla or saffron, I don't know yet) tonight and am a bit discouraged by the sheer amount of heavy cream that goes into it. I have no doubt that it makes for an amazing texture, but I would like to know if a lower-fat version that tastes just as good can be made. Any suggestions and recipes to offer? Thanks!

  1. hohokam Oct 24, 2008 12:47 PM

    Here's a recipe from this site that calls for a 1:1 cream to milk ratio, rather than the 3:1 ratio I've seen in other places.


    I can't personally vouch for it, however.

    1. jen kalb Oct 24, 2008 12:53 PM

      I know there are versions with buttermilk and yogurt.

      1. ChristinaMason Oct 24, 2008 01:00 PM

        I've made it very successfully using half and half in place of all the milk/cream. I tried one of the 1:1 cream:milk recipes and wasn't as pleased-- the cream seemed to separate and rise to the top, which wasn't great for the texture. This happens a little bit with half and half, but not nearly as badly.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ChristinaMason
          ChristinaMason Oct 24, 2008 01:04 PM

          Oh, I forgot to mention. It can also be made with fat-free half and half, or perhaps even just whole milk. The results are not as rich, but still enjoyable. Let us know how it goes!

        2. paulj Oct 24, 2008 01:13 PM

          I was pleased with a version from a South American cookbook that used equal parts cream and fruit puree (canned mango and passion fruit).

          With these stronger fruit flavors, it might work to substitute (undiluted) evaporated milk for the cream.

          1 Reply
          1. re: paulj
            paulj Oct 27, 2008 07:47 PM

            I just tried evaporated milk, and like the result. It may be a lighter than the cream version, both in taste and texture. Since I was working from memory, the proportions of liquid to gelatine may be a bit different. Anyway here's what I made:
            - heat 1 can of evaporated milk (12oz), with 1/2c sugar
            - bloom 1 packet of gelatin in a a bit of water
            - dissolve gelatin in the hot milk
            - puree 1 can (15oz) of mango slices (Trade Joes) - reserving 2 slices
            - add about 1/4c passion fruit puree to the mango (frozen Columbian puree in this case)
            - add fruit to milk
            - pour into shallow container, top with diced mango

          2. JoanN Oct 24, 2008 01:30 PM

            See this post and following comments for a surprisingly good substitute for heavy cream.


            1. p
              pâté chinois Oct 25, 2008 01:49 PM

              Yes! It can! I used the Panna cotta with tropical fruit salsa (or something like that) from Epi - it's one third heavy cream, two thirds buttermilk, with a bit of sugar, gelatin and vanilla. I made extras just to taste test them and they are great, smooth, silky and creamy, with a nice tanginess from the buttermilk.

              I'll serve tonight with a pear and cranberries compote sweetened with honey.

              Thanks for your help and advice - I'll try the heavy cream substitute when I don't have people over for a dinner party :-)

              1. amyzan Oct 26, 2008 03:22 PM

                I have a recipe made with one part half and half to three parts lowfat buttermilk. You dissolve the sugar with half of the half and half over medium heat, while the gelatin softens in the other half. Pour the softened gelatin mixture into the sugar and half and half mixture and stir until everything dissovles thoroughly. When it's at room temp., mix in the buttermilk, portion, and chill. This is great with raspberries. I usually use 2 tsp. gelatin to 2 c. total liquid, and only add 50 grams (1/4 c.) sugar, but you may want more sugar. Remember that chilled desserts don't taste as sweet once they're cold.

                1. BobB Oct 27, 2008 08:54 AM

                  There are lots of delicious, custardy alternatives to true panna cotta. But you really should not abuse the language by calling them panna cotta - a phrase that means, quite simply, cooked cream. If it ain't made with cream, it ain't panna cotta. Period.

                  17 Replies
                  1. re: BobB
                    amyzan Oct 27, 2008 06:25 PM

                    So, what's Italian for half and half? Can we get away with calling it "panna latte col 50% di crema" or "panna siero del latte?" Maybe Italians would simply call it "panna cotta contrafatto!"

                    No one has suggested adding eggs or egg yolks, so I don't see how the above suggestions are "custardy?" I've always understood that panna cotta is thickened with gelatin, not egg yolks.

                    1. re: amyzan
                      BobB Oct 28, 2008 06:32 AM

                      Panna cotta is indeed thickened with gelatin. Custard is usually made with eggs, but some types are made with gelatin, rennet, cornstarch, or other thickeners. Only in formal French cuisine is custard required to contain eggs. Which is moot anyway - as long as we're discussing the precise use of language, I didn't say these panna cotta alternatives were custards, I said they were custardy - that is, custard-like. Similar, not necessarily the same.

                      As for naming, you don't need to call an alternative anything Italian, you can call it Amyzan's Amazing Ambrosia if you like. My point is simply that panna cotta has a specific meaning, and if you use the same name for something else the language is the loser.

                      1. re: BobB
                        cleopatra999 Oct 28, 2008 06:50 AM

                        Is panna cotta an easy dessert to make? Can it be made ahead of time?

                        1. re: cleopatra999
                          BobB Oct 28, 2008 07:00 AM

                          Relatively easy, yes. And it has to be chilled before serving so in fact you NEED to make it ahead of time!

                          1. re: cleopatra999
                            paulj Oct 28, 2008 08:44 AM

                            Panna cotta is essentially a 'jello' dessert made with a significant amount of cream - or as discussed here, a cream substitute.

                          2. re: BobB
                            amyzan Oct 28, 2008 06:34 PM

                            So, I gather that you aren't as particular with your use of the English language, Bob? Ambrosia is usually a fruit based "dessert salad" of sorts, often with coconut shreds. Perhaps ambrosia doesn't have a particular meaning to you in the same way panna cotta does? or am I picking nits?

                            1. re: amyzan
                              BobB Oct 29, 2008 06:34 AM

                              You are, but that's fine - obviously I love to pick them too! ;-)

                              So, to pick a bit further, ambrosia is an ancient Greek word whose original meaning is food of the gods, and it has a wide variety of secondary uses, including the fruit dessert you mention. Panna cotta, on the other hand, is literally Italian for cooked cream and has no other, more generic connotation. Any delicious thing may rightly be called ambrosial; nothing is called panna cottal.

                              1. re: BobB
                                paulj Oct 29, 2008 08:10 AM

                                Yet the '1000 Italian Recipes' books says 'there is practically no cooking involved' - just enough to dissolve the gelatin. This is quite a contrast to, say, English clotted cream. Or an egg and cream custard.

                                In that book several other gelatin based desserts are called 'Galatina di ....' (Limone, Caffe, etc).

                                1. re: BobB
                                  tmso Oct 29, 2008 11:00 AM

                                  All that is fine and good, but where you're going astray is with an unjustifiably narrow idea of what comprises "panna".

                                  1. re: tmso
                                    BobB Oct 29, 2008 11:22 AM

                                    How so? Panna is cream. It doesn't necessarily have to be the heaviest cream and nothing but, but it does have to be cream, or it's not panna.

                                    I suppose you can take the position that an abomination like fat-free half-and-half is cream, but if so we'll just have to agree to disagree.

                                    1. re: BobB
                                      tmso Oct 30, 2008 02:13 PM

                                      Exactly, panna is cream, not just heavy cream. Panna leggera can be as low as 12% fat, in fact, no funny business with starches or anything, just lightly separated cream. Since most in the US only have access to heavy whipping cream, you can mix cream and milk to lengthen the cream. What the OP ended out making -- a mix of fresh and cultured, cream and milk, along with sugar and gelatin -- is absolutely panna cotta.

                                      1. re: tmso
                                        BobB Oct 30, 2008 02:55 PM

                                        And there is precisely where we disagree - in my book anything that's made with 2/3 buttermilk may be a delicious dessert, but it is absolutely NOT panna cotta. Call me a purist if you will. Or a traditionalist. Or just a stubborn jerk. ;-)

                                        I am curious though, why you think the only cream most Americans have access to is heavy whipping cream. Most any supermarket I've been in anywhere in the country has a range of creams from half-and-half, to light, heavy, to whipping.

                                        1. re: BobB
                                          tmso Oct 31, 2008 09:33 AM

                                          Well, a quick back of the envelope calculation gives me:

                                          1 C heavy cream = 88,1 g fat / 238 g = 37% m.g.
                                          2 C reduced fat buttermilk = 9,8 g fat / 490 g = 2 % m.g.
                                          3 C resulting mix = 97,9 g fat / 728 g = 13,5 % m.g.

                                          So that's more or less a reconstruction of light cream, except using ingredients that were separated with a centrifuge. Personally, I'll just buy the light cream in the first place.

                                          When I lived in the Bay Area, I remember a massively impoverished selection of dairy products in the grocery store unless I went out of my way to go somewhere fancy. But it may very well vary wildly.

                                          All that said ... for dessert, I'm not a huge fan of custards and creams. Give me a piece of fruit and the cheese plate :-)

                                          1. re: BobB
                                            amyzan Oct 31, 2008 10:24 PM

                                            I've not seen light cream in groceries for over twenty years. I've heard that it's still available in some parts of the country, but I don't believe it's common.

                                            1. re: amyzan
                                              BobB Nov 1, 2008 07:48 AM

                                              That surprises me, it's very common in New England - but now that I think about it, all the major dairy suppliers around here are New England-based, since we still have an active dairy farming community. I wonder if it's a chicken-and-egg thing, the local suppliers have always produced it, so people are used to buying and using it, so it stays in production.

                                              Now you've got me curious. I think I'll start a thread on General Chowhounding and see if we can get some more data points from around the country.

                                              1. re: BobB
                                                amyzan Nov 1, 2008 11:57 AM

                                                Yeah, I will look for that thread, because I've lived or stayed for long periods in many parts of the country (excluding New England, though) and not found it anywhere. This includes TX, CA, NC, KY, LA, and KS. KS, where I currently live, has many local dairies, but no light cream available. Some of the local half and half is near rich enough, but it's not labeled as light cream.

                              2. re: amyzan
                                tmso Oct 28, 2008 08:52 AM

                                Half-and-half is at the extreme light end of the spectrum of creams. At around 10-15% fat, I know it in Italian as panna leggera (I know it better as crème légère, which is neither here nor there). I suppose you could call it "panna cotta di panna leggera" or "panna cotta leggera". But I see no reason to call it anything but "panna cotta" if you made it from cream, milk, sugar and gelatin.

                            2. paulj Oct 29, 2008 05:12 PM

                              This week's Daisy Cooks episode (PBS Create) shows a Mamey "Panna Cotta", or in Spanish 'Tembleque de Mamay'. The recipe is in her book.

                              Mamay is a tropical fruit. A traditional Puerto Rican tembleque uses corn starch. Daisy uses gelatin, hence the quoted "panna cotta". She dissolves the gelatin in warm fruit pulp (with part of the cream), then cools it, and folds it into whipped cream. Then chills the mix.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: paulj
                                BobB Oct 30, 2008 12:04 PM

                                Actually, that sounds like a classic Bavarian Cream: a fruit puree or other flavoring mixed with gelatin and whipped cream, then chilled to set, usually in a mold. I love Bavarians, they're easy to make and always crowd-pleasers! My favorite is made with maple syrup and garnished with candied pecans.

                                1. re: BobB
                                  ChristinaMason Oct 18, 2009 02:34 PM

                                  mind sharing the recipe?

                                  1. re: ChristinaMason
                                    BobB Oct 19, 2009 08:23 AM

                                    Happy to!

                                    1 Tbsp unflavored gelatin
                                    1/4 cup water
                                    1/2 cup maple syrup
                                    1 cup hot milk
                                    1/4 cup sugar
                                    1/4 tsp salt
                                    3 egg yolks
                                    1 tsp vanilla extract
                                    1 cup whipping cream


                                    Put the gelatin into the water to soak and set it aside.
                                    Put the maple syrup, milk, sugar and salt into the top of a double boiler, and stir over boiling water until everything is dissolved.
                                    Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl, then pour a little of the hot mixture over them and stir briefly.
                                    Add the egg yolk mixture to the remaining mix in the double boiler.
                                    Stir and cook over boiling water until the mixture coats a spoon heavily.
                                    Add the soaked gelatin and stir until dissolved.
                                    Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
                                    Whip the cream and gently fold it into the custard mixture.
                                    Place it into a wet mold and refrigerate for 12 hours or more.

                                    As I said, I like to unmold this onto a plate and garnish with candied pecans, but you could also make it in individual dishes if you prefer.

                                    1. re: BobB
                                      ChristinaMason Oct 19, 2009 10:05 AM

                                      Sounds good, thanks!

                              2. m
                                Major504 Oct 30, 2008 03:06 PM

                                Use the cream.

                                Eat the tasty Panna Cotta

                                Then go jogging

                                1. Eat_Nopal Oct 31, 2008 02:05 AM

                                  The Mexican version (Gelatina 3 Leches) is made with Evaporated Milk, Whole Milk & Condensed Milk in a roughly 1:1:1 ratio .... much lower in fat than the Italian version (particularly because you can use 2% Evaporated Milk & some skim Condensed Milk... it will turn out a bit more dense than Panna Cotta but it will also be more flavorful. You can also sub 1/3 of the "Milks" with a liquor-simple syrup concoction... and you are back to a similar texture as Panna Cotta.

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