I have to admit a certain weakness for cool creamy desserts. While I have a huge sweet tooth in general, given the choice I will always pick creamy over cakey. This is why I prefer frosting to cake to the point of eating away a particularly tasty frosting and leaving nothing but denuded sleds of dry cake.
As a matter of fact, given the choice of what dessert I would have for the rest of my days, I would choose crème brulee, hands down every time and twice on Sunday. Crème brulee is the kind of dessert which will never fail to tempt me on a dessert menu.
Alas, as much as I love crème brulee, it is fussy and time consuming to make. And while I can’t deny that making crème brulee is well worth the effort, it is not something to be done spur of the moment in the middle of the night just because. Panna Cotta is!
I first discovered panna cotta through one of my favorite (and first) cooking blog, Chocolate & Zucchini. Reading Clotilde’s vivid descriptions of the creamy, light as air custard, it was hard not to get inspired.
I admit that the concept of “milk jello” which is what this recipe first appeared to be, was a bit…off-putting. But just one little bite of the end result was enough for me to fall in love. Rather than being rubbery, the gelatin lent softness to the cream. Despite the heavy cream the dessert was whisper light and not too sweet. Another words… it was simply perfect.
The taste reminded me of crème brulee and given a crust of sugar it would be a great fake out. An eggless creamy custard with a crunch topping.
Since that first time I have made countless variations. From a sweet potato infused panna cotta (a freak accident that turned out quite tasty) with home made cranberry sauce to a vegan version made with coconut milk and cardamom.
This has perhaps become my easiest, tastiest go to dessert. It only takes a few moments to whip up in the kitchen and can be made several days ahead. It is however somewhat of an indulgence. Heavy cream and whole milk make unappealing to make to often. Which is a terrible shame.
I have, of course, off and on pondered the concept of making this lower in fat; but how do you take a dessert that heavily relies on the taste and mouth feel of cream and remove the cream? Panna cotta means “cooked cream.” It’s right there in the recipe.
I didn’t of course ponder it too heavily. It was just one of those things that rattled in the back of my mind. Until, that is, I read the latest issue of Gourmet Magazine. The issue had a most tempting version of panna cotta made with yogurt.
Alas, this too had cream. And while I liked the gelee that Gourmet suggested, I had no desire to pair it with the flavors I had in mind. Brown sugar and tangy yogurt to do scream grape to me. Brown sugar yearns for warmer flavors. Toasty and subtle.
Brown sugar calls for hazelnuts.
Ok… admittedly that is what it calls for in my mind. But I have somewhat of a small obsession with hazelnuts and a very large bottle of Frangelico to use up.
Thus set up, I went to work on the recipe. I didn’t like the fact that it still used heavy cream, so I cut the fat by using whole milk. I was a little worried because unlike heavy cream, whole milk curdles at the drop of a hat, but I found that vigilant stirring (read constant) and not quite allowing the liquid to come to a boil kept that from happening.
The recipe turned out almost perfect. There was too much sugar and the custard set a bit stiffer than I like, but the results were delightful. The Greek yogurt brought a tongue tickling tang to the party while preserving the original creaminess without the cream. And because it was more or less low fat, I felt absolutely justified in eating it for breakfast with a bit of sour cherry syrup (stone fruit with nuts).
I will definitely be making this version again. Though probably not with Frangelico. The tang of the yogurt left me with a desire for something slightly more sour, like raspberry or lemon. I can easily imagine this with a bit of raspberry coulis stirred in and then topped with more of the same. Or a lemon flavored version topped with a decadent spoon full of lemon curd. With some fresh fruit on the side, it would make an elegant and easy make-ahead breakfast!
Yogurt and Brown Sugar and Panna Cotta
1 ¾ teaspoons unflavored gelatin 
1 cup whole milk 
1/2 cup loosely-packed dark brown sugar or 1/3 cup raw sugar 
2 cups low-fat plain Greek style yogurt 
3 tablespoons flavoring 
In a small bowl, whisk together yogurt, salt and flavoring until smooth.
Sprinkle the gelatin on the bottom of a small saucepan. Add ¼ cup of the milk and allow to stand for 3 minutes or until the gelatin has expanded and solidified slightly. Place the saucepan over low heat, whisking constantly until the gelatin is dissolved.
While continuing to whisk add the sugar, whisking it in thoroughly before adding the rest of the milk. Adding the sugar first will lower the temperature of the milk and prevent the remaining, cold milk from curdling. Heat, whisking constantly until the milk is just below boiling and a thin froth has formed on the surface. Do not allow the milk to boil.
Remove from heat and slowly add the milk to the yogurt mixture. Stir until the milk is incorporated and the mixture is silky smooth.
Lightly rinse a set of ramekins or glasses and divide the panna cotta mixture amongst them. Rinsing the ramekins will help with unmolding the finished dessert. Chill for at least four hours or over night.
Serve with fruit syrup or a touch of fruit coulis.
 The original recipe calls for 2 teaspoons but I like my panna cotta to set softer so I reduced it. If you prefer a firmer dessert, add all 2 teaspoons. You can also substitute agar agar. However if you do so you will have to keep the milk in the heat until the agar agar is dissolved.
 Original recipe calls for cream. But whole milk or half and half work very well. Do not use 2% or skim milk as they curdle very easily.
 Tightly packed, the brown sugar in this recipe was far too sweet. Brown sugar also may be too heavily flavored for some additions so a good substitute would be raw sugar which has just a little bit of that caramel taste without being overwhelming.
 The original recipe called for regular yogurt but I find it a wee bit boring so I substituted Greek style yogurt by Fage. My favorite breakfast food. Greek style yogurt is a little more sour and tangy than regular. It is also thicker so if you are using regular, plain yogurt, either drain it first or use 2 teaspoons of gelatin to account for the extra liquid.
 I used a combination of vanilla and Frangelico. Because I am allergic to alcohol, I always boil off the alcohol first. To do so, I place the liquor into a small, shallow frying pan and turn the burner onto high. Once the alcohol begins to boil the volatile fumes will ignite and burn until most of the alcohol is cooked off. I continue to boil until the liquor has been reduced to a third of its original volume. Other liquors that would be excellent in this: Chambord (Black Raspberry), Limoncello (Lemon), Midori (Melon), and ginger. This would be equally good with a fruit jam or coulis instead of the liquor.