My friends Barbara and Antonio Masullo took me to a seafood restaurant in Perugia, the beautiful capital of Umbria. Ristorante Renato Sommella, on Via Baldeschi, 5, was run by Neapolitans, not Perugians. Everything was first-rate, but the best thing on the menu was panna cotta, or cooked cream.
I was so busy eating this sublime dessert that I hurriedly scribbled notes on how it was made. Just cook sugar, cream, and gelatin, I was told. Here is my version. It is wonderful served as is, but I sometimes gild the dish with Fresh Plum Sauce or a rich chocolate sauce. Make this the day before you plan to serve it.
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 2-inch piece vanilla bean
Grated zest of 1 small lemon
Grease four 1/2-cup ramekins lightly with butter and set aside.
Pour the half-and-half in a small bowl and sprinkle on the gelatin; then stir to dissolve. Set aside
In a medium saucepan, mix the cream, sugar, vanilla bean, and half-and-half mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to boil. Take care not to let the mixture bubble up over the sides of the pan. Cook until the mixture begins to thicken slightly, then remove the pan and discard the vanilla bean.
Stir the lemon zest into the cream, then carefully pour the mixture into the ramekins. Place them on a tray and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until set, about 5 hours or overnight.
To serve, run a butter knife around the sides of the ramekins to release, or dip each mold quickly in hot water and then invert onto serving dishes. Serve at once.
Note: This is wonderful served as is, but is even better with a fruit sauce or a rich chocolate sauce.
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