Panna cotta is a simple Italian dessert made of essentially cream, sugar and gelatin. The mixture is brought to a boil and poured into molds or cups, and after setting in the refrigerator for several hours, you end up with an elegant pudding-like treat. Normally, panna cotta is lightly flavored with vanilla, but this summer, I decided to change up the recipe by swapping in wild elderflowers to infuse with the cream. The result was amazing. I was delighted by how well the flowers’ delicate, perfume-y notes incorporated with the fat.
It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly these tiny, cream-colored flowers taste and smell like—a bit of lychee, green tea, and subtle anise. When paired with bright and tart fruit, you get an irresistible combination. Lemon and elderflower is a classic pairing, but you can serve this panna cotta with any fruit syrup or preserves you like. Add fresh seasonal fruit to the plate as well for presentation.
Lastly, it’s important that you include as little stem as possible when adding the flowers into the cream. Although a little bit won’t do any harm, elderflower stem is toxic and can impart bitter notes in recipes. Make sure you can positively identify elderflower before consumption. Don’t mistake it with poison hemlock.
- 1½ cups fresh elderflowers (no stems)
- 1 envelope of unflavored Knox gelatin
- 2 tbsp. cold water
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup half and half
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup lemon juice
- 1 tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
- 2 tbsp. salted butter
In a small saucepan, add 2 tablespoons of water and evenly sprinkle gelatin powder on top. Allow it to stand for 2 minutes. Then heat on low and stir until gelatin completely dissolves. Turn off heat and set aside.
In a medium or large saucepan, combine cream, half and half, sugar, and elderflowers. Bring just to a boil, stirring often, and then immediately turn off heat. Strain to remove the elderflowers. Divide the strained mixture among six small cups or ramekins and allow to cool on the counter. Then cover each ramekin with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or at least 4 hours, until set.
Meanwhile, make the lemon sauce. In a stainless-steel bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until smooth. Then add lemon zest, lemon juice, and butter. In a small to medium saucepan, boil some water to make a double boiler. Place the bowl with the egg-lemon mixture on top of the saucepan with boiling water, and cook, stirring often, until thickened. This could take at least 10 minutes. The sauce is thick enough when it could coat the back of a spoon, and you can create a clear path by running a finger through it. Allow it to cool before serving with the panna cotta.
To unmold the panna cotta, hold the ramekin for a few seconds in hot water. Turn the ramekin over on a plate. Serve with cooled lemon sauce on the side or on top. If you decide to serve the panna cotta inside the ramekin or cup, simply spread lemon sauce on top. I like to use a clear cup to be able to see the layers.