Panna Cotta vs. Pudding

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Canned, jarred or fresh chopped cherries turn vanilla pudding pink.
Canned, jarred or fresh chopped cherries turn vanilla pudding pink. (Image: Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Pudding comes in a variety of forms, such as baked or stove-top custards, stove-top puddings and instant mixes. Panna cotta refers to a specific Italian cooked pudding. It resembles other puddings with its soft and silky texture that comes from milk, cream or yogurt, but it differs from others in its ingredients and in how it is made.

Puddings With and Without Eggs

Flan, creme caramel or extra creamy pot de creme made with only egg yolks, not egg whites, are all custards, which always contain eggs as thickeners. Puddings may or may not contain eggs for thickening and are more often thickened with cornstarch or flour. Panna cotta, by definition, never contains eggs. Instead, it's thickened with an envelope of unflavored gelatin sprinkled over water.

Cooking Techniques

Custards are cooked slowly over a double boiler or in a water bath so that the eggs don't curdle, and nonegg puddings are typically cooked on the stove top. Panna cotta, in contrast, is hardly cooked at all. For panna cotta, bring the milk or cream and sugar to a boil on the stove top and then remove it from the heat to stir in the gelatin. The mixture goes into individual serving cups and chills in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight before you serve it.

Dessert Is Served

Puddings typically come to the table cold, although some baked custards are best when you serve them warm from the oven. Panna cotta, however, is always served cold, straight from the refrigerator. To serve panna cotta, dip each serving cup or ramekin in hot water for about 3 seconds to loosen it, place a serving plate on top of the ramekin, and invert the ramekin and the plate so that the panna cotta stands alone. Panna cotta frequently comes with fruit served on top.

Make Mine Chocolate

Although panna cotta traditionally comes with vanilla flavoring, you can change its flavor and the flavor of any pudding. Incorporate solid ingredients, such as cut fruit or candies, into puddings after they're cooked, but serve those solid ingredients alongside panna cotta unless they will melt into the milk and sugar mixture. Stir spices and liquids, such as cardamom, lemon juice or chocolate powder, into either dessert during cooking, and spoon flavored toppings, such as fruit preserves or caramel sauce, over the desserts.

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