Panna cotta – full fat or skinny?

I have always wanted to try making panna cotta. Having never made it before friends of mine would tell me that it is super easy but I had no idea how easy it is! I think of it as a cream based Jell-O (and it’s just as easy to make except you’re using real cream instead of all those artificial colors and flavours).

Thing is, panna cotta calls for cream (usually heavy cream or whipping cream although I heard that you can swap out half-and-half to make it a little lighter). I volunteered to make panna cotta for a supper club I was hosting and figured I would make two version of this classic Italian dessert. A full fat version (using whipping cream) and a ‘skinner’ version using half-and-half (they are both pretty high in calories however). One of the dinner guests is a marathon runner so he believes in going for full flavour (which means full fat) for most things. Hey man, if you run marathons you can pretty much eat whatever you want. Those of us, however, who don’t have any desire to run 26 miles (approx. 42 km) don’t have such liberties.

Of course the full fat one is going to taste richer and creamier but I’m wondering if the ‘skinnier’ version will taste all that bad. I don’t think so. I think it might be worth the compromise.

Here is the recipe that I used to make panna cotta:

Panna cotta – makes 4 servings
Recipe adapted from David Lebovitz

2 cups (500mL) heavy cream (or half-and-half)
1/4 cup (100g) sugar
1 tsp of vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 packet powdered gelatin (about 2 teaspoons)
3 Tbsp (45mL) cold water

1. Heat the heavy cream and sugar in a saucepan or microwave. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract. (If using a vanilla bean, scrape the seeds from the bean into the cream and add the bean pod. Cover, and let infuse for 30 minutes. Remove the bean then rewarm the mixture before continuing.)
2. Lightly oil eight custard cups with a neutral-tasting oil.
3. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a medium-sized bowl and let stand 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Pour the very warm Panna Cotta mixture over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.
5. Divide the Panna Cotta mixture into the prepared cups, then chill them until firm, which will take at least four hours. If you’re pressed for time, pour the Panna Cotta mixture into wine goblets so you can serve them in the glasses, without unmolding.
6. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each Panna Cotta and unmold each onto a serving plate, and garnish as desired.

Taste testers:
Try each one of the panna cottas and comment on appearance, texture and flavour. Is there an obvious difference between the full-fat and skinner version? Which one do you like more? Is it really worth going the full-fat route?

The results:
It was really fun to see my taste testers try the panna cotta. They didn’t have anything (good or bad) to say when they tasted the panna cotta that was made with half-and-half. However, as soon as they tried the one made with whipping cream it was game over. Phrases such as “I can totally tell which one is the one with whipping cream”, “The texture is totally different –  it’s more velvety and creamier” and “I would be happy with just half a serving of the whipping cream version than twice as much of the one made with half-and-half”.

Sadly, I also have to conclude that when it comes to panna cotta, the fat content in the whipping cream makes all the difference. Taste wise, they tasted similar enough but it’s really the texture that was the deal breaker. And because panna cotta has very few ingredients, the fact that the cream plays such a central role makes it hard to compromise on this aspect. The version that was made with half-and-half had a texture that was very similar to hard set Jell-O whereas the one made with whipping cream had a slightly softer and velvety texture (and the vanilla flavour was more pronounced – no surprise since fat carries flavour).

When it comes to panna cotta, don’t waste your time with the half-and-half. Give it the respect it deserves and use whipping cream. It is true that when it comes to good quality food, you don’t need as much to be satisfied (and I really don’t like compromising on dessert). I would rather go all out with the cream and sugar and just have it less often. Life is too short to be eating mediocre dessert.

I am going to say that I am so sorry for all those years that I told clients to substitute half-and-half for whipping cream. What was I thinking? Mind you, I think in certain applications you could still get away with it (eg. cream based soups such as cream of leek, potato and cream of mushroom). Of course, I’ll have to conduct another series of taste tests to test this out). But where panna cotta is concerned, go all out and use whipping cream!