This week, we made panna cotta with caramel sauce! I have to say, I was super excited because I don’t eat chocolate, and there aren’t many popular desserts without it, so this was a welcome change. I also especially love caramel, so that was another big draw.
VANILLA BEAN PANNA COTTA topped with a SALTED CARAMEL SAUCE: The Recipe
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
- 1 cups heavy cream
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Cooking spray
- small bowl
- Four 4oz Ramekins
- thin sharp knife
- liquid measuring cup
- dry measuring cups and spoons
- Oil the ramekins: Spray a paper towel with some cooking spray. Wipe the insides of your four ramekins with the paper towel to create a light coating of cooking spray. Set the ramekins aside.
- Bloom the gelatin: Pour the milk into the saucepan and sprinkle the powdered gelatin evenly over top. Let soften for 5 minutes or until the surface of the milk is wrinkled and the gelatin grains look wet and slightly dissolved.
- Dissolve the gelatin over low heat: Set the saucepan over low heat and warm the milk gently, stirring or whisking frequently. The milk should never boil or simmer; if you see steam, remove the pot from the stove and let it cool down. The milk should get hot, but not so hot that you can’t leave your finger in the pot for a few seconds. The gelatin will dissolve quickly as the milk warms; it melts at body temperature so this step should go quickly.
- Check to make sure the gelatin is dissolved: After about 2 minutes of warming, rub a bit of the milk between your fingers to make sure it’s smooth. Ordip a spoon in the milk and check the back for distinct grains of gelatin.
- Dissolve the sugar: Stir the sugar into the milk and continue warming until it dissolves as well. It shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes total to dissolve both the gelatin and sugar. Again, never let the mixture boil.
- Whisk in the cream and flavorings: Remove the saucepan from the heat. Whisk in the cream, vanilla, and a pinch of salt.
- Portion the panna cotta into the oiled ramekins. Refrigerate overnight.
For the caramel
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons sea salt, crushed
For the caramel hazelnuts:
- Whole hazelnuts, toasted and peeled
- 3 tablespoons water
- 4 ½ tablespoon sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- Hot plate/burner – MUST BE CLEAN. Use an SOS pad to remove any burned residue before turning on the burner.
- 2-quart saucepan – your saucepan must be VERY CLEAN. Sour with an SOS pad if your pan contains burned residue.
- Instant-read kitchen thermometer
- rubber spoonula/spatula
- Pastry brush
Make the Caramel Sauce
In this recipe, the sugar is caramelized, then mixed with fat and water (cream and butter) before it can cool. The result is a sauce rather than a candy.
BEFORE BEGINNING, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A BOWL OF COLD WATER NEAR YOUR WORKSTATION IN CASE YOU GET HOT SUGAR ON YOUR SKIN. Do not put a sugar-burned finger in your mouth. The heat from the sugar will burn your mouth as well. Place a burned finger immediately into ice-water.
- Melt the butter in the cream. Over medium heat, warm the cream and butter in the 2-quart saucepan until the butter melts. Remove from heat, and carefully pour the cream/butter mixture into a glass measuring cup. Set aside. Wipe out your saucepan.
- Combine the sugar and water. In your 2-quart saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Stir until the sugar is evenly moistened and you form a thick grainy paste. Wipe down the sides of the pan with a damp pastry brush so there are no sugar crystals above the surface of the sugar mixture. Spray a paper towel with non-stick cooking spray and wipe down the inside of the pot – above the sugar. Clip the instant-read thermometer to the side of the pan so that the heat sensor is immersed in the sugar. Do not stir the sugar after this point.
- Cook the sugar syrup. Place the pot with the sugar mixture over medium to medium-high heat. Let the sugar syrup come to a boil without stirring. At first, you will see small bubbles around the edge of the pan, which will eventually move inward. Around 250°F, the sugar syrup will turn transparent and boil rapidly. You may need to tilt the pan to cover the tip of the thermometer for an accurate reading. Around 320°F, the syrup will darken slightly and smell caramel-like; true caramelization chemistry starts occurring at 320°F. Move on to the next step when the caramel is a few shades lighter than your goal color, as it will continue to cook even after you remove the heat. The darker the caramel, the more complex the flavor and the less sweet. Do not let the caramel get above 350 degrees or it will turn bitter. Use extreme caution!! The pot and sugar will be VERY HOT.
- NOTE: This is the step that you should adjust to get a lighter caramel vs a darker caramel. For a light caramel, only let the reaction proceed for a short time. For a darker caramel, let the reaction go longer.
- Whisk in the HOT cream and butter. If your cream and butter are not hot – then zap it in the microwave. CAREFULLY remove the pot from the heat and gently place it on the counter. SLOWLY pour the hot cream and butter mixture into the sugar syrup while whisking the sugar syrup smoothly but quickly and thoroughly. The sugar syrup will bubble up and triple in size. Hot steam will be released. Cover your whisking hand with an oven safe glove/mitt as a precaution. Stop whisking once all the cream and butter mixture has been added.
- Whisk in the salt. Quickly whisk the salt into the caramel.
- Pour the caramel into your glass measuring cup to cool.
- Allow the caramel to cool until almost room temperature. Unmold the panna cotta (see below) and spoon the cooled sauce over the panna cotta to form a thin layer. (Be sure the panna cotta has set before adding the caramel sauce. If the caramel sauce is too hot, the panna cotta will blend into the sauce – allow to cool considerably before topping the panna cotta.
Making the caramel candy covered hazelnuts
In this caramel making process, there is no added fat. The caramel will harden into a glassy candy shell around the hazelnut.
- Roast the hazelnuts:
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Spread your shelled hazelnuts on a cookie sheet in a single layer, place on a rack in the middle of the preheated oven
- Let the nuts roast for about 12 minutes, then check on them. If they smell nutty and are lightly browned then they’re done. If they’re not, keep checking on them every minute or so. They can go from toasted to burned very quickly
- Insert a toothpick in each roasted hazelnut.
- Melt the sugar and water in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Let the sugar syrup come to a boil without stirring. At first, you will see small bubbles around the edge of the pan, which will eventually move inward. Around 250°F, the sugar syrup will turn transparent and boil rapidly. You may need to tilt the pan to cover the tip of the thermometer for an accurate reading. Around 320°F, the syrup will darken slightly and smell caramel-like; true caramelization chemistry starts occurring at 320°F. Do not let the caramel get above 350 degrees or it will turn bitter. Use extreme caution!! The pot and sugar will be VERY HOT.
- When the caramel is the color you desire, remove from the heat. Allow it to cool for up to 60 seconds before proceeding. The cooler caramel will be slightly thicker and will form more dramatic drips.
- Dip each hazelnut in the caramel by holding the toothpick. Use sticky tack to immobilize the toothpick over the sink, allowing the dripping caramel to form an “icicle”. Place a paper towel under the dripping caramel to make clean up easier. If your caramel is too liquidy to “drip” well, then let it cool a bit more.
- Allow the coated hazelnuts to cool completely. Place on the caramel coated panna cotta and serve!
Unmolding and topping the Panna Cotta
- Fill a bowl half way with very warm water.
- Run a thin knife carefully around the sides of a ramekin. Don’t slide the knife all the way into the cup; just release the top edge of the pudding from the edge of the cup.
- Dip the ramekin in the warm water up to its rim, and hold it there for about 3 seconds.
- Unmold on a plate: Invert the ramekin over the plate and shake gently to help the panna cotta fall out, or press gently on one side to help nudge it out. It should fall out on the plate easily. (If it does not, return to the warm water bath in increments of 2 seconds.)
As you can see, this is a pretty involved recipe. We actually had to start making the panna cotta a day before in order to give it time to set in the refrigerator. Throughout, we also made a few adjustments, but here’s how it went:
We started making the panna cotta Tuesday morning. Amisha did a lot of the set-up, collecting all the ingredients and oiling the ramekins while I bloomed the gelatin in the milk and watched the surface wrinkle.
Next, we heated up the gelatin and milk mixture to dissolve it, taking it off the heat a few times when it started to steam.
We had to check a few different ways to make sure the gelatin was fully dissolved because we were so worried that we might do it wrong, but eventually just used our fingers and felt no grains.
We then added the sugar and let it dissolve, then took everything off the heat and added flavorings. Finally, we filled up our ramekins and moved them to the fridge.
For the second day, I was super nervous because of all the safety warnings Dr. C had included in the recipe. We got started as soon as we could.
We started by melting the butter and cream together.
This went quickly, so we poured the hot butter and cream into a glass measuring cup. Amisha had the great idea to cover it with a saucepot lid to keep it hot while we worked on caramelizing the sugar.
Once we had rinsed out the pot thoroughly, we got started on the sugar.
We mixed the sugar and water into a paste.
Then we worked to slowly heat it (without stirring). It took a lot of time and a lot of patience, but it eventually the whole thing started to bubble up at about 250 degrees.
The temperature continued to rise and caramelization started to occur. The directions mentioned taking the sugar off the heat and adding the cream mixture a few shades later than your desired end shade, and we wanted to keep our fairly light, so we took the sugar off when it was medium gold.
We added in the cream and butter mixture, whisking constantly.
The mixture stayed really light, however, so after consulting Dr. C, we added the whole mixture back to the heat. She recommended heating it up to above 300 but not above 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
As we reheated our mixture, we toasted our hazelnuts. Dr. C’s husband had bought chopped nuts instead of whole, so we decided to make caramel candy shard instead of dipped nuts. We also whisked the sauce now and again as it eventually reached our desired color.
We pulled the whole thing off the heat again and added a generous pinch of salt. We poured it into a glass measuring cup and immediately got started on the caramel candy.
We thoroughly cleaned out the pot again and got started on another smaller batch of sugar and water.
It heated up way faster than we anticipated, so we didn’t get a picture of the browning. I had run to the bathroom, so I barely got it off the stove before it burned.
Luckily, we had pre-arranged the nuts in clusters on the parchment paper next to the hot plate, so I was able to quickly pull the sugar off the heat and pour it into the candy clusters.
I was hoping to do a little bit more of a spun sugar delicate look with our candy, but because of my worry it ended up pouring out in fairly solid disks. This, however, made it perfect for candy shards, so we broke up the pieces of caramel and got ready to unmold our panna cotta.
We had set up a warm water bath to unmold our ramekins, the sauce was partially cooled, and our candy was ready to go. I was really excited to assemble everything, so I asked if we could use fancier plates.
I unmolded our first panna cotta into a plastic bowl to figure out a good aesthetic arrangement, but when I topped it with the sauce, it was still too warm and it started to melt the panna cotta.
While I waited for our Lab Assistant to get the fancy plates from the staff break room, I threw the caramel sauce into the fridge to hurry up cooling.
Finally, the plates arrived, I chose my favorite and got to work making the picture perfect panna cotta. Here it is:
And now, CHEMISTRY!!
- Why is the darker caramel less sweet?
- Darker caramel is less sweet because the sugars start to break into other kinds of molecules like caramel(i/e/a)ns, which are unflavored, brown-colored molecules. It also means that the sugars that have broken down no longer taste sweet. The sugars also interact with the butter and cream to create Maillard reactions, which develops more complex flavors.
- At what temperature did YOU see caramelization chemistry occurring? How did you know?
- Caramelization seemed to occur around 330 degrees Fahrenheit, because that was when I noticed an actual browning of the sugar syrup.