Dicembre Dolce: Panna Cotta alle Spezie

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Raise your hand if…
* yours is always the last house on the cul de sac to put up holiday lights.
* you have yet to buy ~ let alone decorate ~ a tree.
* the only batch of Christmas cookies you baked is long gone and you have yet to bake more.
* haven’t started shopping for gifts

Me! Me. Me. Me.

Every year I find myself scoffing at those who have their lights up before Thanksgiving, or boast that they had all their holiday shopping done by the end of August. I mean, what is the rush? And then, just like that, it’s mid-December and I’m the one who’s being scoffed at.

That’s when I pull out this recipe for spiced panna cotta (cooked cream). Because we all know that nothing, but nothing, is easier to make than panna cotta. Seriously, it takes no more effort to make this than it does to pull the lid off a Kozy Shack pudding. It is nothing more than heavy cream, heated with a handful of spices, then thickened with gelatin and chilled. And even though I like Kozy Shack (original rice, please), this is better.

There are just a couple of things to keep in mind when making panna cotta. The first is to use really good cream, since it is the star ingredient (locally I’m partial to Lewes Dairy and Trickling Springs Creamery; when I’m in Michigan it’s Shetler Dairy (motto: “Our cows aren’t on drugs but they are on grass”)).

Also, you want the consistency of the chilled panna cotta to be just so ~ too much gelatin and you get white Jell-O; too little and it spills out when you unmold it like an aging movie star taking off her Spanx. This recipe gets it just right.

Panna cotta may be easy to make, but it’s still luxurious, especially when it’s spiked with cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. It would be a fine way to end a holiday dinner party ~ if you can get your act together to organize one.

What’s your favorite holiday short-cut recipe? I’d love to hear about it.

Makes 4 servings

Panna Cotta alle Spezie

(copyright 2012 Domenica Marchetti)

Use your favorite spices to flavor the hot cream. Keep it simple with vanilla bean and lemon zest, or add more complex flavors such as star anise and peppercorns, as I've done here. Many recipes for panna cotta include a sauce of some sort as a garnish. You can serve this with a fresh berry sauce or pear compote if you like, but I find it detracts from the delicate flavor of spice-infused fresh cream so I serve it as is. Garnish with a dusting of cinnamon or a whole star anise (the latter should be removed, of course, before the panna cotta is eaten).


  • 2 cups good heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3 to 4 whole star anise
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 3 to 4 whole cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 2 strips lemon zest
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split open lengthwise
  • 1/2 envelope (1/8 ounce) unflavored gelatin


Combine the cream and sugar in a medium saucepan. Add the star anise, cinnamon stick, peppercorns and lemon zest. Scrape in the vanilla beans and add the pod. Cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is almost at a simmer, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes.

Pour 1 1/2 tablespoons water into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand for 5 minutes.

Uncover the cream and bring it just to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and use a skimmer to remove the spices and lemon peel. Gently whisk in the gelatin mixture until it is completely dissolved. Pour the panna cotta into four (4-ounce) molds or ramekins and let cool slightly. Cover the molds tightly with plastic wrap and set them in the refrigerator to chill for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.

To unmold, dip the bases of the molds in hot water to loosen the panna cotta just a little. Unmold the panna cotta onto small dessert plates and garnish each serving with a dusting of cinnamon or a star anise.

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10 Responses to Dicembre Dolce: Panna Cotta alle Spezie

  1. Coco December 12, 2012 at 7:55 am #

    My favorite easy Holiday recipe: Peanut Butter Truffle Cookies
    1 cup creamy peanut butter
    1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
    1 large egg
    1 tsp. baking soda
    1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, using a wooden spoon, combine all ingredients except chips until blended. Stir in chocolate just until combined.
    Drop slightly rounded teaspoonfuls of dough onto ungreased baking sheets.
    Bake 9 minutes or until cookies are puffed and golden. Cookies will be very soft. Place baking sheets on wire rack and let stand for 5 minutes. Remove cookies from sheets and cool completely.

    • Domenica December 12, 2012 at 11:30 am #

      Coco ~ Yum! I know one person in our house who will love making these, and another who will love eating them. Any idea whom I’m referring to? ha ha. Thanks for sharing this recipe. We’ll be thinking of you while munching away…

      • Coco December 12, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

        I have panna cotta on the stove right now! Needed something to take my mind off RTW!
        I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  2. Laura (Tutti Dolci) December 13, 2012 at 1:23 am #

    I love the shape of your molds, how beautiful!

    • Domenica December 13, 2012 at 10:05 am #

      Thank you Laura. They’re just these little colorful plastic molds I got years ago, maybe at Sur la Table. This is the first time I used them for panna cotta. I’m glad I remembered to dig them out of storage. 🙂

  3. elisa December 13, 2012 at 11:10 am #

    Chocolate Fudge Truffles :
    Prep Time: 10 minutes Cook Time: 20 minutes:
    •1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
    •4 tablespoons cocoa powder
    •1/4 teaspoon salt
    •3 tablespoons butter
    •1 teaspoon vanilla
    •Chocolate sprinkles or coconut flakes or ground nuts for decoration

    1.Pour the condensed milk into your heaviest pot. Stir in the cocoa powder and the salt.
    2.Cook, stirring constantly, over low heat. Keep the mixture barely at a boil to prevent burning and sticking.
    3.Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring, until mixture becomes very thick and shiny and starts to pull away from the bottom and sides of the pan.
    4.Remove from heat and stir in the butter and the vanilla.
    5.Chill in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes. With buttered hands, roll the mixture into 1 inch balls.
    6.Roll each ball in the chocolate sprinkles, or coconut or ground nuts and place in a paper liner.
    7.Chill until ready to serve.
    Sometimes I add 1tsp of rum or other liquer (not the commercial flavoring)
    I make these often and everyone loves them! Buon Natale!

    • Domenica December 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

      Elisa ~ anything with condensed milk gets a thumbs up on my book. This sounds delicious. Thank you for sharing. Buon natale!

  4. AdriBarr December 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    Ciao Domenica,

    I love your description of the effects of varying amounts of gelatin on the end product. PRetty funny, especially the part about the Spanx. How many times have I been disappointed in restaurants when I am presented with a beautiful panna cotta only to discover I need a knife and fork to eat it.

    Funny, but over the last two weeks or so I have been meaning to work on a licorice/ anise panna cotta. I considered using anise extract or crushing little Italian anise candies. But here you have done all the work and come up with something much more sophisticated. And the addition of the 1/4 teaspoon peppercorn was a stroke of genius. I bet the flavors marry beautifully. I can’t wait to try this. Grazie, amica.

    Buon Natale, Adri

  5. AdriBarr December 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    I almost forgot-your countertop looks beautiful. Really beautiful.

    • Domenica December 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

      Thank you Adri ~ for both comments. Your mention of licorice makes me think of Saila, the little Italian licorices that were sort of the Italian version of tic-tac. They were produced in Silvi Marina, where I spent my summers growing up. I don’t know if the factory is operating anymore. But…that’s off topic. There are endless possibilities with panna cotta, aren’t there, though sometimes the purest version with just vanilla is best.

      I love the marble countertops. A lot of people tried to discourage it but I figure people have been working on (and walking on) marble since Roman times so why not.

      Auguri per un buon natale!

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