Panna Cotta for a Crowd

I cooked for a bunch of people last weekend. And a bunch of people cooked for me.

On Saturday afternoon I dropped off dinner for 12 at my friend Jill’s house. For the last few years, Jill and her husband, Rudy, and several other couples have been the winning bidders on a series of Big Night In-themed dinners to raise money for our kids’ school.

The menu was simple but substantial, in keeping with the book’s theme of convivial entertaining: 3 pounds of fresh maccheroni alla chitarra, with Abruzzese-style ragù; beef tenderloin with salsa verde and salsa bianca; truffled mushrooms; mixed salad with citrus-honey dressing; and, for dessert, panna cotta with rhubarb compote (which actually comes from Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian).

On Saturday evening, my husband and I were, coincidentally, guests at another Big Night In dinner, hosted by my friend Carolyn and her husband, Paul. They belong to a wine club, and members were tasked with making a recipe from the book and pairing it with wine.

It was a big party. Among the dishes folks made from the book: pear and pecorino salad with chestnut honey; bruschetta with roasted cherry tomatoes; seafood risotto with prosecco; double carbonara; a riff on arrosticini made with lollipop lamb chops; beef tenderloin (this time with salsa bianca and salsa rosa); roast pork loin with carrots, fennel and onions; and maple-roasted squash. I’m sure there was more. Carolyn made the sour cherry gelato with bittersweet chocolate-cherry sauce, and since I was already making one large batch of panna cotta for the other party, I went ahead and made a second for this one.

I’ve been writing books and doing events for awhile now (closing in on 10 years), but still it’s kind of awesome, and a bit nerve-wracking, to be the guest at a dinner starring your own recipes. Wine helps. There were a couple of dishes ~ pear and pecorino salad and double carbonara ~ that I had not made in years (one of the few downsides to cookbook writing is that you’re often too busy developing new recipes to revisit the old ones). I don’t mind telling you that I was a little surprised at how good they were (self-doubter here).

It turns out that the sleeper hit of both dinners was the simplest thing on the menu ~ the panna cotta (though I personally would have to go with the sour cherry gelato). Several people said it was the best dessert they’d ever had so I was happy to inform them that it’s also the easiest dessert in the world to make, because what is panna cotta, really, but Jell-O made with cream ~ and a bit of vanilla bean or other flavoring tossed in?

I managed to make it even easier, too. Instead of chilling the cream in individual molds, which would have meant having to un-mold and plate each one at serving time (we are not a restaurant), I poured the warm cream into a large decorative serving dish so that portions could be easily spooned into cups or bowls. Garnish with a dollop of roasted rhubarb compote and voila, dessert is served.

There was one more Big Night In-related coincidence over the weekend. On Friday, as I was prepping the dinner to bring to Jill’s ~ stirring sauce, tying and seasoning the beef, slicing and sautéing mushrooms ~ and wondering just what I was going to feed my own family that night, I got a call from my neighbor Meredith inviting us to an impromptu dinner. She had made, of all possible things, beef tenderloin and sautéed mushrooms from Big Night In.

Unfortunately, both dishes of panna cotta chilling in my fridge were already spoken for. Luckily, my husband had picked up a bottle of wine.

Sometimes ~ not always, but sometimes ~ things fall into place quite nicely.

Makes 12 servings

Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Roasted Rhubarb Compote

(Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian)

Since panna cotta has so few ingredients, be sure they are the best: good cream and real vanilla bean rather than vanilla extract. The panna cotta needs to chill, so make it the day before you plan to serve it. There are plenty of ways to garnish panna cotta, but probably none as pretty as sliced strawberries and a dollop of ruby rhubarb compote, which, in addition to color, provides a nice, tart contrast to the creamy pudding.


  • For the panna cotta:
  • 6 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 vanilla bean
  • 1 1/2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

  • For the rhubarb compote:
  • 1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and sliced crosswise
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 vanilla bean


To make the panna cotta, in a large saucepan, combine the cream and sugar. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean half into the cream mixture and toss in the pod. Cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is almost at a simmer, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 20 minutes.

Pour 3 tablespoons water into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand 5 minutes.

Uncover the cream and bring it just to a simmer over medium heat. Gently whisk in the gelatin mixture until dissolved, then remove from the heat. Discard the vanilla bean pod. Pour the panna cotta into a 2-quart baking dish, bowl or soufflé dish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely set, at least 3 hours and up to overnight.

Meanwhile, make the rhubarb compote: Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, combine the rhubarb and sugar. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean half into the dish and toss in the pod. Fold everything together gently. Transfer the rhubarb mixture to a baking dish and cover with aluminum foil. Bake until the rhubarb is very tender, about 45 minutes. Let cool slightly. Discard the vanilla bean.

To serve, spoon panna cotta into individual bowls or cups and top with the compote.

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18 Responses to Panna Cotta for a Crowd

  1. Helen Free April 10, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Did anyone bring those delicious savory biscotti from BNI? Note to self: give my sisters and friends this book and enjoy a BNI get together, too.

    • Domenica April 11, 2013 at 8:05 am #

      Actually, no savory biscotti at the party. Funny you should mention that, though. I’m going to be testing recipes soon for the savory chapter of the biscotti book. Guess I know whom to go to for thumbs up/thumbs down.

  2. janie April 10, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    This dessert looks so amazing! I love all your books Domenica and have had great success with everything I’ve made.

    • Domenica April 11, 2013 at 8:09 am #

      Janie, how kind of you to say so. I, on the other hand, am completely in awe of how faithfully you post to your own lovely blog. Thank you for the continued inspiration.

  3. Leah April 10, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    Gorgeous, Domenica! Fabulously inspirational menus, both, and I’m sure everything was enjoyed by all!
    I love your idea of putting the panna cotta in a large bowl instead of individual ones. Makes for much easier serving! Thanks for the suggestion. It’s a family favourite!

    • Domenica April 11, 2013 at 8:12 am #

      Thank you Leah. There was no way I could trust myself to turn out a dozen perfect panna cottas from individual molds (though I know chefs do it all the time) so this seemed the logical solution.

  4. Betty Ann @Mango_Queen April 10, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    This is a terrific idea for a big crowd and you made it sound so easy! Can I try another fruit with this? Sounds like you had quite a busy, but fun weekend. Thanks for sharing, Domenica!

    • Domenica April 11, 2013 at 8:13 am #

      Betty Ann ~ definitely try another fruit. Knowing your creative streak I’m sure you’ll come up with something wonderful.

  5. Laura (Tutti Dolci) April 10, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    Beautiful, I love the rhubarb compote!

    • Domenica April 11, 2013 at 8:15 am #

      Laura ~ I didn’t eat a lot of rhubarb growing up, but my dad has always liked it. I started making this compote a few years ago. I should have included a picture because it is the most beautiful shocking red/pink color. You know from my Instagram that I love spooning it onto Greek yogurt, my morning ritual in spring. That’s probably my favorite use for it.

  6. ciaochowlinda April 10, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    Great story and wonderful dessert that I’ll be sure to try now that rhubarb season is almost here. I’m always interested in other ways to serve rhubarb and panna cotta is one of my favorite desserts.

    • Domenica April 11, 2013 at 8:18 am #

      Thank you Linda. If you are a pie lover, you should check out the strawberry-rhubarb pie recipe over at American Food Roots. It was posted by one of our AFR members and it is fantastic. I like it because it’s nice and tart. Actually, I served it when Helen was here so she can vouch for it! Hope you make it down to the DC area one day soon so we can all get together here.

  7. elisa April 11, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    What a coincidence. I made panna cotta on Sunday for an older Italian neighbour who turned 90. After reading your American Food Roots and Nevin’s story on maple syrup, I decided to drizzle the panna cotta with maple syrup. It was heaven!!! (yes I had some myself).

  8. stacey snacks April 11, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

    I love the decorated top with the strawberries. I am always looking for ways to use rhubarb. Beautiful!

    • Domenica April 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

      Thanking you belatedly for stopping by and reading, Stacey. I’ve been rather neglectful here on the blog lately. What’s the opposite of spring fever? Spring torpor? I think I have it. Thank you for your kind words.

  9. Jana April 18, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

    Another easy option for plating panna cotta is individual servings in small dishes: espresso cups (nice for coffee panna cotta), dipping bowls, or small ramekins.

  10. Rebecca A Lupton June 17, 2017 at 8:15 pm #

    I know this post is old, but maybe you still get these…do you think that it would work too put the chilled compote on the bottom of the dish before you put the cream in. So that when you sooner out a serving it would be underneath?
    Or, alternately, do you think there’s enough gelatin in to unmold it in one piece?

    • Domenica Marchetti June 18, 2017 at 12:35 pm #

      Hi Rebecca, welcome. I like your idea of putting the chilled compote on the bottom of the dish. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. And yes, I do think there is enough gelatin in this recipe to unmold it in one piece. You might need to dip the bottom in hot water to coax it out. Or you could divide the panna cotta custard among individual ramekins/molds instead of using one large mold. It’s a pretty accommodating recipe. Good luck!

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