On the 15 December 2018 my niece Allania Parker married Tom Hardy in a lovely wedding ceremony outside St Lukes Church in Tikorangi North Taranaki.
Allania had asked some of her Aunts to make food for the wedding reception. I volunteered to take on one of Allania’s favourite desserts and so began the Great Panna Cotta Project of 2018.
The brief was simple - panna cotta for 150 guests for the dessert buffet table to be consumed by standing guests rather than served at the tables.
Look, if you don’t know me very well let me tell you that this task had my name written all over it. I love planning and proving a plan. I’m always good for “one go” so don’t come back to me and say “Let’s do that again” because I proved it already!
I’d never eaten, let alone made panna cotta before. A few Google searches and a couple of practice recipes later I found it to be one of those very basic combination of ingredients that punches well above it’s weight - a typical trait of Italian cooking. Boiled, sweetened cream set with gelatine.
First I determined that no one invited to the wedding had any serious food allergies. I was thinking that one of the panna cotta might have praline (toffee and nuts - an idea I discarded in the end) so didn’t need any of the guests going into anaphylactic shock. With hindsight I should have reminded the lactose intolerant members of my family that cream is dairy, but they really needed to look after their own digestive issues.
Traditionally panna cotta is turned out onto a plate, but wobbly desserts are hard to eat while standing. I’d made a few batches of panna cotta to decide how much was enough for someone to eat. Between 50-100 millimetres was plenty due to the richness of the dessert, so a 100ml jar would do the trick. After pondering different vessels - second-hand tea cups, mismatched jars, plastic punnets - I found a wonderful place in Wellington called Arthur Holmes who could supply attractive new jars with lids. They dispatched my order within a few days and all jars arrived in tact without a single breakage.
I tried several variations of panna cotta recipes. Some with yoghurt, others half milk/half cream - but found the only one that worked and tasted the best was full cream, no skimping*. I decided, with the exception of one batch of Nutella flavoured panna cotta, all others would be vanilla and add flavouring by varying the toppings: passionfruit curd, lemon honey, salted caramel, berry compote and vanilla.
(I thought that having mini-meringues and macarons on top as well but the week before prototyped that version and found they added complexity to eating the dessert so decided to just keep the toppings simple and achievable.)
Panna Cotta for four servings
21/2 tsp gelatine
1/4 c water
2 c cream
1/4 c sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Panna Cotta for ten servings
9 tsp gelatine
1 c water
2 ltrs cream
1 c sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Sprinkle gelatine over water and allow to bloom.
Mix cream and sugar and bring to boil
Add gelatine and dissolve
Remove from heat and strain into jug
Pour into jar
Seal and refrigerate overnight
Shopping list for ~150 Panna Cotta
18 litres cream*
1.5 kilogram sugar
Toppings/flavourings - 1 litre each
*don’t skimp cream either - full cream, full price, the better quality the better the result. Cheaper “own brands” tend to separate as you will see in the base of the jars in the photographs of panna cotta on this page.
Because the dessert is cream one of my biggest worries was bacteria. I decided I needed to make the panna cotta as close to “on site” as possible to minimise the desserts being outside of a chiller/refrigerator. I hired a holiday home close to the venue that had a modern kitchen with plenty of bench space and a large fridge. I also pre-ordered the cream from the supermarket so it was as fresh and as chilled as possible.
The jars and lids were sterilised in batches before filled with the creamy panna cotta, and cooled in the fridge in soldier rows that made it easy to count.
I decided to do half the panna cotta on Thursday, the other half on Friday. While I thought I could do the 150 panna cotta in one (long) day, I didn’t want to discover at the end of that “long day” that I had a problem with the mix - that it hadn’t set or it couldn’t all fit in the fridge, for instance. So splitting it in two a) saved my feet and b) ensured that if there was a problem, I had time to fix it before delivering the dessert on Saturday before the wedding.
While cooking the second batch of panna cotta on the Friday, the first batch was topped with the different flavourings. The second batch of panna cotta had its toppings added on Friday night after testing the dessert was set. While all the toppings were cool when added to the set panna cotta, I added the salted caramel while it was still hot. This way it melted into the set panna cotta and remained soft - sometimes caramel can be a bit chewy when cool and I didn’t want anyone fighting caramel with their spoons.
The boxes the jars had been shipped in originally made the perfect mode of transport for the panna cottas to get to the wedding. There were 48 jars per box so made them easy to lift, carry, transport and store in the chiller.
Allania had organised a buffet of desserts. She had made the pottery serving dishes the slices from other members of the family had made for the table. They looked amazing, spilling out and over the edges of the platters: caramels slices, neenish tarts, fudge brownies. We piled the jars of panna cotta in and around the serving dishes. The table looked inviting and delicious.
I delivered 164 jars of panna cotta to the reception for 150 guests. At the end of the evening 29 jars remained, nearly all the vanilla versions. When cleaning up I did notice that the Nutella flavoured panna cotta often only had a spoonful taken from the jar and the rest left uneaten. I imagine because they look like chocolate but taste like hazelnut - which isn’t everyone’s taste or expectation.
The general feedback was good, with one person asking me if I did events, and a couple of people requesting the recipe. I felt really satisfied that the dessert turned out and was so well received. Not to mention so much fun to plan and execute. Favourite toppings were passionfruit and salted-caramel.