Vegetarian Panna Cotta

9 Jul

I have always loved panna cotta. The milky, trembling, perfectly set dessert just does it for me. May be because its so simple – the essence of milk. Scented lightly with vanilla, not too sweet, creamy and yet light, its a wonderful dessert. You can add all sorts of things – a chocolate sauce, a drizzle of strawberry jelly, fruits – to the pana cotta itself, or on the side, and you will get a different taste. A light espresso sauce comes to mind. Anyway, the whole point is, panna cotta is a simple and delicious thing – but I was unpleasantly surprised when I found out how it was made: milk, sugar, vanilla and gelatin. Now, vegetarians cannot eat gelatin because its made up basically of hooves, bones and cartilage of animals from the slaughterhouse boiled down. I will consume animal by products like eggs and milk, but not by products from animals that have been slaughtered. So I have foregone my panna cotta, and moved on to other delights.

Until a few months ago, when I used agar agar to stiffen and hold whipped cream. Hmmmm. I wondered if the same could be applied to the creation of panna cotta. Well, yes, but. Yes it can, agar agar is an excellent gelling agent. And yes, its relatively easy. But, you really have to follow instructions. I know this by trial and error. For almost each cup of milk or cream that you use, you need a little less than 1 tsp powdered agar agar. The agar agar must be given sufficient time, in a variety of circumstances, to melt and incorporate into the cream. If it doesnt, you get a yucky, grainy, unset mess. I know. It happened to me!

I did save it though, and now have six pretty glasses of panna cotta settling peacefully in my fridge. This dessert is easy to make as long as you accept there will be a long period of calm reflective slow cooking, and a few moments of utter chaos. Best prepare for the chaos at the beginning and set everything up so that at least it is controlled. If you do, you will have a guilt free (well relatively) panna cotta that really delights.

For 6 ramekins or glasses you will need:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (or additional milk if you dont have or dont want to use the buttermilk)
  • 3 3/4 tsp agar agar
  • 3 cups cream or half and half (I used 1 1/2 c cream and 1 1/2 c whole milk)
  • 6 – 8 tbsp sugar (preferably caster)
  • 1 vanilla bean split in half  or 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • At least 2 cups ice

First off the prep. Set up your six glasses or ramekins on a clean tray or baking sheet and set aside. Have a large mixing bowl (that will fit your saucepan comfortably) at the ready, along with ice in the freezer, a large pouring jug, and a sieve.

In a medium saucepan, pour the 1 cup milk + 1/2 cup buttermilk and sprinkled the agar agar on top. Mix well and leave for at least 5 – 10 minutes to soften and incorporate. I use buttermilk in this recipe because I love the subtle tang it gives the finished product – it enhances the taste of milk, without intruding. However, if you just like milk, just use milk!

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, pour the cream / half and half and sprinkle over the sugar, and mix in the vanilla extract, or scrape out the vanilla bean, and pop its contents, and it, in. Leave to get acquainted.

After about ten minutes or so, go back to the saucepan, and on low heat, bring to the simmer, stirring all the while. What you will want to see is the mixture slowly getting thicker, and the agar agar melting. You want to bring this just-almost-not-quite to the boil. A few bubbles coming lazy to the surface and you know youre just  a tad too hot. You want to do this slow and gentle.

Hold the milk at a simmer, stirring slowly all the while for 3 – 5 minutes, and then add half of the cream mixture. Continue stirring and repeat bringing the milk-cream mixture just to the boil, and keeping it at a high simmer for a few minutes. Finally, add the rest of the cream mixture and repeat. This entire process should take you between 10 – 15 minutes. Your main aim here is a smooth creamy mixture. You want to ensure that the agar agar is completely melted into the milk and cream, and it can only do so if you bring it just to the boiling point. Enjoy this time, because all hell will break loose soon!

Agar agar gells without the need for refrigeration, so as soon as you take it off the heat, it will start to stiffen up. You now need to work extremely quickly. Put ice into the large bowl with water, and set the saucepan atop. Mix to cool down for only a few minutes – you still want to work with a warm/hot mixture, otherwise it will start gelling! Place sieve over your pouring jug, and pour all the cream through, pressing down on the solids, and discarding. Pour the cream straight into your ramekins or pretty glasses. You will see the drips and drops starting to gel so work quickly but evenly. Cover, and refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight.

A note on the agar agar: I have read that agar agar to liquid should be a 1 tsp to 1 cup ratio. I have tried this, and it comes out a very very stiff jelly. My aim for the panna cotta was a slightly wobbling, smooth, silky dessert. I have therefore come up with a ratio of 4 1/2 cups liquid to 3 3/4 tsp agar agar. This is an important measurement. Please make sure you measure everything carefully. If your agar agar does not set, or sets too hard, you can always melt everything down again, reheat and go through the same process. If it is set too hard, add at least 1/2 cup of milk and 1 tsp or more of sugar. If it has not set enough, add 1/4 tsp of agar agar.

Good luck!

4 Responses to “Vegetarian Panna Cotta”

  1. Darren December 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    This looks great! I miss Panna Cotta now I’m Veggie. Thanks!

    • delectableblog April 30, 2013 at 1:42 am #

      Its lovely … but test your agar agar … different ones do set differently … I did one with a different brand and it turned a little tough. 🙂

  2. vegetarian February 21, 2014 at 11:38 pm #

    I am regular reader, how are you everybody? This piece of writing
    posted at this web site is truly pleasant.


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    […] first one I made was this vanilla vegetarian panna cotta from Delectable.  I followed the recipe to a T, with one change: I wanted to make cookies ‘n […]

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