Food: Panna cotta a treat like no other

Kate Lawson
The Detroit News

I don’t care what you call it — custard, pudding, coeur a la creme, creme brulee, creme caramel, mousse, tapioca or flan — these creamy, luscious, silken sweets are among my all-time favorite desserts. I would readily push away a piece of cake or slice of pie for a spoonful of pudding if given the choice.

When I was young, there was a creamy dessert that my mother would make called Junket. It came from a box much like Jell-O and was made with rennet, which curdles milk and causes the mixture to set. I can’t explain why I loved it, but the silken texture — a little sturdier than pudding — seemed to delight my tongue. I loved the vanilla flavor and sometimes my mother would garnish the dish with sliced bananas or berries, but basically, I just preferred it unadorned. I think Junket Brand rennet tablets may still be available if you remember this dish and you’re willing to search.

But now that I’m all grown up, panna cotta, which is Italian for “cooked cream,” is my most favorite of the custard/pudding family, (it’s about as simple to prepare as Junket and so, so much better). It’s egg-free and gluten free, so it satisfies almost everyone.

With the arrival of spring and Sunday’s Easter holiday, I think panna cotta would make the ideal treat. And now that strawberries are beginning to appear in markets and pots of basil are sending out their lovely scents to shoppers, I’ve decided that a lemon panna cotta with fresh strawberries and basil is just the ticket.

Of course, any berries and most fruits would work here; raspberries also make for a pretty garnish and even a drizzle of balsamic glaze lifts the dish. I know people who even add hot fudge, but that’s going too far in my estimation. Prepare the panna cotta in a dish and unmold on a pretty plate or simply fill a few flutes or goblets with the velvety cream and watch your guests scrape out every last delicious bite.

A more simple, satisfying dessert you’ll never find.

Kate Lawson is a retired Detroit News food writer. You can reach her at

Lemon Panna Cotta with Basil Mint Strawberries

2 packages unflavored gelatin, such as Knox

4 cups heavy cream (or substitute half-and-half, or use half buttermilk)

1/2 cup sugar

Zest of 1 large lemon

2 teaspoons vanilla extract


1 pound strawberries

2 tablespoons sugar

6-8 fresh basil leaves

6-8 fresh mint leaves

Soften gelatin over 6 tablespoons cold water.

Heat cream over low heat with the sugar and lemon zest and stir until dissolved. Do not boil. Remove from heat.

Stir in gelatin until melted. Add the vanilla. Pour into glass serving goblets or bowls.

Chill for at least 2 hours. Once firm, top with sweetened berries and aged balsamic vinegar, or lots of shavings of chocolate or strawberry lemon basil sauce.

An hour before ready to serve, finely chop the basil and mint with a sharp knife or scissors. Cut the strawberries into quarters or eigths, depending on their size. Place in a bowl, sprinkle sugar and the basil and mint over the berries, toss gently and let stand for an hour. Unmold the panna cotta onto serving plates. (Dip the bottom half of the ramekin in hot water for 4-5 seconds; it helps to slip the panna cotta right out.) Serve with the berries and accompanying syrup spooned around the panna cotta. (You can also serve this directly in the ramekins topped with the strawberries.) Serves 6.

Per serving: 668 calories; 59 g fat (37 g saturated fat; 79 percent calories from fat); 31 g carbohydrates; 29 g sugar; 219 mg cholesterol; 67 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 2 g fiber.