Creamy, chocolatey, indulgent (but surprisingly light!), and simple. Chocolate panna cotta has it all, making it the perfect dessert to finish a romantic meal.
The first time I had panna cotta was back in the 90s when it swept through restaurants and found a place on dessert menus all over.
We were at our favorite Italian restaurant (which at that point was one of the only good restaurants in our area, so we were there a lot!), and I saw a chocolate panna cotta on the menu. So, I asked what it was and found out it was a gelatin and cream based dessert (panna cotta in Italian means cooked cream) that the chef had combined with chocolate for his restaurant.
Of course I had to try it! It was chocolate after all… 🙂
And then I needed the recipe. Since we were regulars, the chef was willing to share and I’ve had the recipe ever since. Or rather, the list of ingredients. Since his recipe was ‘here’s what you need to make it’ ‘go make it’.
Over the years I’ve tried different variations and different amounts of chocolate and different methods, depending on my mood.
And then, for a reason which I’ve only now figured out, I couldn’t get it to work. Instead I would have soup. Tasty soup, but not panna cotta. So, I put my panna cotta recipe away for many years.
With Valentine’s day coming up, I thought ‘you know I should pull out my chocolate panna recipe and figure out what was going on with it and post it for everyone to enjoy!’
So I did.
Little did I know I was starting a saga in my quest to make the perfect chocolate panna cotta!
What was up with the soupy panna cotta?
It turns out that at some point I switched to using Cook’s Illustrated method of making panna cotta, which involves warming the milk (or cream), adding the hydrated gelatin, and the continuing to warm the mixture.
Gelatin melts at about 95F and starts to degrade at about 140F. Can you see the problem? It is very easy to bring the milk up above 140 long enough to knock all the oomph out of the gelatin.
Instead warm the milk, add the chocolate and make a smooth mixture, then Off The Heat, check the temperature of the milk, and add the gelatin/milk mixture once it’s cool enough. You will have no trouble dissolving the gelatin and no trouble with soupy panna cotta.
How to melt the chocolate smoothly into the milk
In an effort to make the smoothest panna cotta I could, I tried a number of different methods to melt the chocolate into the milk.
- Add the chopped chocolate directly to the milk and stir to melt. This method wasn’t bad so long as you strained it well! However, I thought I could get it even smoother.
- Pour the hot milk over the chopped chocolate (like a ganache), let it sit for a couple of minutes, then stir it. This was the worst! It may work if you are using all heavy cream, but it was incredibly grainy with the half and half.
- Heat the milk in one pan and melt the chocolate in another pan. Then stir them together. This is the method I ended with because it produced the smoothest, least grainy panna cotta. However, you will want to get the milk good and hot (around 160-170F) before you add the chocolate. Heating both the milk and chocolate to the same temperature and then combining them turned out to be nearly as grainy as the second method.
Unmolding – yes or no
The last part of making panna cotta I wanted to work on was whether or not to unmold the panna cotta and what containers are best for unmolding. This ended up taking a fair amount of research and thought since there is very little information about the best materials and shapes for unmolding a panna cotta.
To that end I tried ceramic, glass, and metal containers. I also used some wide containers and some tall and narrow containers.
From an esthetic standpoint, tall and narrow won the day by a large margin. You can serve in a wide container and be quite happy with how everything looks, but once you invert that panna cotta onto a plate tall looked so much better.
As for material:
- Ceramic – poor conductor of heat so if you can’t get the panna cotta to just slip out, you will need to warm it so much you get a puddle with your panna cotta. I would not recommend for unmolding.
- Glass – can be good or bad. Glass is very smooth and you can see what’s happening as it unmolds. However, glass is also a poor conductor of heat so I had mixed results.
- Metal – this was my favorite and the one you see up there in the photo. I found the panna cotta generally slipped out easily and that I could warm the cup briefly to loosen even a stubborn panna cotta.
- Non-stick – I did not try this! But I can imagine that it would be perfect for panna cotta so long as you can find a cup of the right size and shape.
But I didn’t answer the yes or no question yet!
Yes, if you’re confident and won’t be bothered if your panna cotta won’t come out or makes a chocolatey puddle or comes half out. Also, practicing ahead of time is a good plan.
No, if you just want to make dessert and not worry about it. In that case, use pretty serving cups. It’ll be tasty either way! 🙂
– Happy Dessert Making, Annemarie
Intense Dark Chocolate Panna Cotta
- 3/4 tsp gelatin
- 1 cup half and half, divided, 1/4 cup for the gelatin and 3/4 cup for the saucepan
- 2 oz bittersweet chocolate
- 1-2 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 dash kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp espresso powder
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Set out two 6 oz cups, bowls, or ramekins. If you want to unmold the panna cotta, use either metal ramekins or glass custard cups (which should be deep rather than wide) and lightly grease them. If you want to serve in the containers, use any decorative cups or bowls you have.
- In a small bowl mix together the gelatin and 1/4 cup of the cold half and half. Let the mixture sit for 5-10 minutes to hydrate the gelatin.
- Finely chop the bittersweet chocolate. Put the chocolate into a heat proof bowl. In a medium saucepan (one which the bowl fits over snugly), heat 1-2 inches of water until hot and steaming. Reduce the heat to low and put the bowl of chocolate over the saucepan to melt the chocolate, stirring frequently. Once the chocolate is mostly melted, move the saucepan off the heat to let the chocolate finish melting there.
- While the chocolate is melting, combine the remaining half and half with the sugar, salt, and espresso powder in a medium saucepan or saucier. Cook over medium heat until the sugar and salt are dissolved and the cream is steaming with little bubbles around the edge, about 4-5 minutes.
- Take the cream off the heat and pour in the melted chocolate. Stir well to combine the chocolate and cream. Add the vanilla and stir to combine.
- Then pour in the hydrated gelatin mixture and stir together until the gelatin is dissolved.
- Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and line the strainer with cheesecloth. Pass the panna cotta through the cheesecloth into the bowl. Divide the panna cotta between the two prepared containers. Transfer the panna cotta to the refrigerator and let chill for at least 2 hours, though they will be firmer at 4 hours.
- To unmold the panna cotta, run a thin blade around the edge of the cup to loosen it from the sides. Then put the cup into a container of hot water for a few seconds. Tip the cup over the plate. It may slip out right then or you may need to give the cup a few good raps to get it to release.
- Top the panna cotta with whipped cream, a few berries, and some finely chopped chocolate.
- If you don't have or can't find half and half, use 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream (also called double cream). Use all heavy cream for a more indulgent dessert.
- The gelatin needs to hydrate in cold liquid before you mix it into the hot milk so that it will dissolve properly.
- I keep my double boiler on very low heat and then off the heat altogether once the chocolate is almost melted, since I've found that otherwise the chocolate can get too hot and may burn.
- While you can unmold the panna cotta, it is not as easy as you might think. If you are trying to impress with your dessert, I would suggest practicing first. Very smooth sided cups are best for unmolding as are ones that conduct heat well if you need to warm the outside of the cup to get the panna cotta to release. I personally had the best luck with tall, metal ramekins.
- I recommend smooth, high-quality chocolate since it is less grainy and will make a smoother panna cotta.
- The recipe can be easily doubled.
- All calorie counts are estimates only for informational purposes.