(Not) My Grandmother’s Panna Cotta

This is not your grandmother's panna cotta. At least, it's not mine. And thank heavens for that.

My grandmother was a fantastic cook, as most of us like to think our grandmothers (especially the Italian variety) are. Her tomato sauce was the standard to which all others were held, her translucent ravioli begged for and savored, her minestrone the best I ever attacked with a spoon. Sadly, there was one, gaping hole in her repertoire: desserts. She just didn’t seem to be interested in making them.

At all.

Of all the adjectives that come to mind when I think of her– loyal, protective, organized, tasteful– sweetness is one word that never enters in. So I suppose her lack of interest in sugary confections was within keeping with her personality. She left those things to her sisters.

I don’t mean to say she never kept sweets around. There were dainty candies in little dishes held prisoner under heavy leaded crystal lids in the living room and there was almost always a package of Stella D’Oro cookies on hand for guests, but the only desserts my grandmother ever made herself were the uninspired, quivering kind: raspberry Jell-O, Royal brand chocolate pudding, and the most boring of all, panna cotta. Or panna cot’ as she liked to call it.

The rest of us, however, called it Milk Jell-O– a name which tells you everything you need to know in terms of a) its texture, b) its vapid flavor, and c) our attitude towards it.  We avoided it, of course, leaving it to a skin-developing, cold-cracking fate in the back of the refrigerator with the other gelatinous forms.

Twenty-some years later, when I began waiting tables at an inexplicably hyped-up, trendy Italian Mom& Pop joint, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that panna cotta was on the menu. More correctly, I couldn’t believe there were people who expected that anyone outside of a nursing home would a) enjoy or b) pay for such palid fare.

Toasted almonds. Not in the least bit as bitter as the author can be.

Then I tasted it, was completely shamed, regrouped my thoughts, and called my cousin, the San Francisco pastry chef. Our conversation went something like this:

“Oh gawwwwwwwwd. My restaurant is serving panna cotta, ” I cried into the phone.

“Eew. You mean they’re actually serving milk Jell-O?” she replied, disgusted.

“Uh huh. But it’s actually really (expletive) good. They make it with buttermilk,” I responded, not quite believing what I was saying.

“Huh. Buttermilk.” I could hear her brain whirr and click. “I need to try this.”

And she did. She came, she ate, she was won over. Just like I was.

I haven’t set foot in that restaurant since the beginning of this century for reasons which are best illustrated by a quote from my panna cotta-making grandmother in response to my non-appearance at her 50th wedding anniversary party:

“Michael, I have decided to forgive you, but I will never, ever forget what you did.”

Oh, those Sicilians. They sure do know how to hold a grudge. Fortunately, they also know how to make great desserts. Except, of course, for my grandmother*.

The bowl was inevitably, privately licked.

Almond Buttermilk Panna Cotta

This recipe is as durable as it is delicious. If you wonder what it is I mean by “durable”, please read through the directions.

Some people may prefer an “almond buttermilk panna cotta” to taste more like almonds, in which case you are more than welcome to add a few drops of almond extract to it. I just happen to like gentle hints of things from time to time. No, honestly.

Also, I’m not a big fan of un-molding things. Even though this dessert is good enough to stand alone, I prefer to not look at it standing. I like mine in a bowl. Or cup. Or in my mouth.

Serves 4 to 6.


1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of unflavored gelatin
1 tablespoon cold water
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
7 tablespoons sugar
1 whole vanilla pod, split lengthwise
1 cup toasted, slivered almonds
1 3/4 cups buttermilk


1. Soften gelatin in 1 tablespoon of cold water in a medium sized bowl for approximately five minutes.

2. Put cream and sugar into a small saucepan, scrape seeds from the vanilla pod into the cream and, once spent, add the pod. Now add the almonds. Heat the cream until the sugar dissolves (about 3 to 5 minutes).

3. Take phone call from your mother as you are heating and stirring the cream. Explain in detail just why it was you decided to have dinner with your exboyfriend. Turn off heat, wander into your living room to explain further. Return to kitchen, stare at cream for a moment, then look over at the gelatin which has been sitting for much longer than five minutes. Take a minute to say hello to your sister and then realize that you have not purchased enough buttermilk for the recipe. Say a hasty goodbye to your sibling, then run to the nearest buttermilk-selling store.

4. Return home believing you may very well need to throw out what you think has been destroyed by neglect and start fresh, but the little voice inside your head that you don’t always listen to tells you to give it a chance.

5. Reheat the cream until warm, then strain through a fine sieve into the gelatin, stirring until the gelatin no longer feels gelatinous. Add buttermilk and stir until all is well-incorporated. Strain the mixture again, but this time into another vessel, preferably one with a pour spout, like a large Pyrex 4-cup measuring cup.

6. Divide between 4 to 6 ramekins, bowls, cups or whatever it is in which you plan to serve your panna cotta. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Serve with sliced tangerine, berries, jam, pomegranate seeds– whatever you like. Or just eat it on its own. Or with a friend. Or 3 to 5 of them.

Just don’t throw it away.


*But I could care less, because I would sell a kidney for one last taste of her ravioli.


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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Sweets and the Like and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to (Not) My Grandmother’s Panna Cotta

  1. Buttermilk panna cotta is one of my favorite things I discovered in culinary school. Looking forward to trying your recipe.

  2. What a darling story. I don’t remember ever getting yelled at as an adolescent: but I broke my parents’ hearts enough times to be shamed into never repeating the same mistake twice. Or getting caught, at least. Beautiful recipe.

  3. Funny, my Calabrian grandma was never a dessert-maker either. We ate lots of Pudding Pops, Jell-O, angel food cake with Cool Whip (and fresh strawberries, at least), Chips Ahoy, and Nutter Butters – but nary a homemade pizzelle among the riches.

    • Oh god, oh god, oh god. My grandmother actually made that angel food/ Cool Whip concoction, too! I now remember always feeling as thought the whipped cream (it was real enough tasting to me as a kid) was a total frosting cop out.

      Thanks for jogging my memory, Casey.

      And, as for pizzelle, I only knew them as “Aunt Marie’s doily cookies” until I was like 25. Sigh.

  4. Scott_D says:

    I was never a panna cotta fan until last October when I had some as part of an outrageously large portions 5 course chef’s menu. It was one of the two desserts. It was served in a bowl, surrounded by a kiwi sauce with toasted sliced almonds. I think it had also been baked with some black pepper on the bottom(now the top). I was completely won over. It was amazing. Now I may have to try this one. It sounds delicious.

  5. Laura Rees says:

    That’s great. My hubs had a similar feeling toward pork chops, which when he was growing up were always cooked to the consistency of shoe leather. The first time he saw them on a menu somewhere, he couldn’t believe anyone would ever order them. 🙂

  6. Oh my…what a great piece of writing. You have just made me wish that all recipes came with more thorough step-by-step instructions.

  7. Deanna says:

    My grandmother (also of the Italian variety) can not make any desserts. She made a pie once and the filling was fruit cocktail. I’m not being very fair though. She can’t really cook at all since she doesn’t believe in salt.

  8. Steve Reidy says:

    You skipped their 50th anniversary party? Now THAT’S the story I want to hear. The stuff about food is nice and all, but breaking your nonna’s heart – and then having her take a hit out on you as revenge* – sounds like an interesting read.

    * I may be extrapolating here…

    • Well, she *was* Sicilian and her grandmother’s maiden name *was* Gambino, so you’re not far off.

      No hit. She loved me very much. And I loved her. I was just tremendously stubborn– a trait I may or may not have inherited from her.

  9. I don’t think I’ve ever had panna cotta… but also I’ve never WANTED to. This story makes me want to seek out some good panna cotta, see if I like it, then try to make some myself!

  10. Thea says:

    “There were dainty candies in little dishes held prisoner under heavy leaded crystal lids in the living room”: perfect. A whole life exists in that image, along with the Stella Dora cookies. I liked their anise toast dipped in coffee with cream.

    And I’m not your mother, but why *did* you decide to have dinner with your former boyfriend?

    • Thea, I’m so glad you liked that sentence. I can remember trying to lift the lid of the candy dish on the coffee table and replace it noiselessly. I rarely succeeded.

      And as for why I had dinner with the ex? Because it needed to happen. It was a good thing. And because I needed a good barley recipe.

  11. Janice D'Sa says:

    Hi Michael,

    I tried this recipe but was a bit confused about the almonds. You mention ‘Reheat the cream until warm, then strain through a fine sieve into the gelatin’. Wouldn’t the sieve catch all the almonds? 🙂 Also, your pictures don’t show any signs of the almonds, my panna cotta was FULL of almonds. 🙂


    • Oh dear. I am sorry for any confusion this may have caused. You WANT the sieve to catch the almonds because that’s the reason you’re running the cream through the sieve in the first place. They only serve to flavor the cream, to infuse them. You don’t want the actual nuts in the dessert because the texture of a panna cotta needs to be uniformly creamy.

  12. Lori Procopio says:

    I don’t remember our grandmother making this.

    What I DO remember is some sort of white “pudding” with imitation rum flavoring, lady fingers in it and chocolate jimmies on it.

    I liked it.

    • The reason you may not remember it was because it was so incredibly boring. It was there. Not very often, but it was there. The “pudding” you are thinking of may have been a dolled up bianca mangiata.

      And wait a sec… imitation rum flavoring? Those old broads soaked everything in rum, so why on earth would grand mom bother with imitation rum flavoring? I am certainly not doubting your word, I’m just now realizing that the buzz I got from those desserts must have been from the sugar and not from alcohol. It’s a pity, really.

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