Easy Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Salted Caramel

Panna Cotta1 (1 of 1)

Panna Cotta is an Italian classic.  This very simple versatile dessert is my go-to dessert when I need to both keep it simple but add a little bit of vavoom to my dolci.  Panna cotta (‘cooked cream‘ in Italian) literally takes 10 minutes to pull together – that is it! It then rests comfortably for a few hours to thicken. You can even make it a day or two in advance, at the ready as a creamy backdrop for a whole host of toppings. I have topped and layered mine with fresh berries, espresso sauce, orange cream, the list goes on. And you can infuse your panna cotta with all sorts of yummy things – mint, lavender, vanilla, espresso. There are a ton of great ideas out there – just google the images and you will drool.

Salted Caramel Hazelnuts (1 of 1)

So in the frenzy of the season, I needed a simple dessert to bring to a dinner party this past weekend. Panna cotta it was. This time I infused it with vanilla bean (yes, you can just use vanilla extract if you do not have the time to track down a vanilla bean!) and made a salted caramel sauce as a topping. I found this fantastic idea for making those little salted caramel hazelnut decorations on top over at Manu’s Menu. What a cool idea! I just stuck the toothpicks in a grapefruit and allowed them to drip into the sink. (If you use a citrus fruit, please remember they have a tendency to roll.  I had a bit of a ‘hazelnut malfunction’ when my little friend rolled into the sink, breaking the 3 or 4 that I had just finished. Secure your citrus :o)).

A few notes – You can easily omit the little hazelnut decorations and top with a little dollop of whipped cream as a topping. Keep the caramel sauce layer thin as it is rich. You may have some caramel sauce remaining – pour into a glass jar and save. Reheat and use over some ice cream or over poached pears or….and if you wish to lighten up the dessert a bit, substitute some half-and-half for the heavy cream. Enjoy!

Christmas tree1Buon Natale!!



Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Salted Caramel Sauce


For the panna cotta:

  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 2 ½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 ½ cups heavy cream
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, split in half, seeds scraped or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

For the salted caramel sauce:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt, crushed

For the caramel hazelnuts:

(From: Manus Menu: http://www.manusmenu.com/salted-caramel-panna-cotta)

  • Whole hazelnuts, toasted and peeled
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 4 ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 1 pinch salt


Make the panna cotta:

  • In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the milk. Let stand until the gelatin is softened and evenly moistened – about 5 minutes.
  • In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds (or vanilla extract). Over medium low heat, bring the mixture to a simmer, whisking occasionally until the sugar has completely dissolved.  (Do not let the mixture boil.)  Remove from the heat and cover. Allow to sit for about 5 minutes to allow the vanilla bean pod (if using) to infuse the cream. Remove the bean pod.
  • Add in the gelatin-milk mixture and whisk until fully dissolved.
  • Pour the panna cotta into serving dishes or glasses.  Refrigerate until set – about 3 hours.

Make the salted caramel sauce:

  • In a heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and the water. Use a saucepan much larger than the sugar/water as the mixture will bubble up a lot when you add the butter and cream. Cook over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Stop stirring. Turn up the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Boil until a deep caramel color, about 5 minutes. WATCH CLOSELY as the mixture will go from caramel color to burnt very quickly – if you have a candy thermometer, it makes the job much easier.  Cook until temperature approaches 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Add in the butter as soon as the mixture turns dark amber (350 degrees). BE CAREFUL AS THE MIXTURE WILL BUBBLE. Keep whisking until the butter melts completely.
  • Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream, again being careful as the mixture will bubble. Stir in the salt and whisk until the mixture is smooth.
  • Allow the mixture to cool until almost room temperature. Spoon the sauce over the panna cotta to form a thin layer.  (Be sure the panna cotta has set before adding the caramel sauce. Also, if the caramel sauce is too hot, the panna cotta will blend with the sauce so allow to cool considerably before topping the panna cotta.)  You may have some caramel sauce remaining – pour into a glass jar and save. Reheat and use over some ice cream or over poached pears or….yum!!

Make the caramel hazelnuts:

(From: Manus Menu: http://www.manusmenu.com/salted-caramel-panna-cotta)

  • Insert a toothpick in each hazelnut.
  • Melt the sugar and water in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Cook until it becomes dark amber in color (about 5 minutes). Be careful to not let burn – keep stirring and watch closely.
  • Dip each hazelnut in the caramel and insert into a lemon/grapefruit/orange and allow to drain over the sink. (I place a sheet of paper or paper towel in the sink to make clean up easier.) Play around with the consistency of the caramel – it forms the drips better as it cools a bit.
  • Allow to cool completely.  Place on the panna cotta and serve!

Join the Conversation

  1. I am going to make this yummy recipe this week and was wondering if the caramel needs to set before serving or is the caramel more “runny”
    I was going to make the panna cotta the night before (to save time!) but wasn’t sure if I add the caramel layer just before serving?

    1. Michele Author says:

      Hi Natasha – The caramel is more ‘runny’ so you can pour on top and then let set. Hope that helps!! Michele

  2. Thank you for sharing your recipe. It was a great starting point (I added an extra cup of milk to the panna cotta) and used Bobby Flay’s salted caramel sauce recipe (it’s a smaller batch of sauce with less sugar and cream). And I even made the hazelnut topper which definitely adds a bit of pizazz. I was very pleased with the consistency (not too firm) and the flavor. Our guests loved it as well. Will absolutely make it again. Many thanks!

  3. I’m making this for Christmas Eve, can you tell me how many servings this make? Thank you.

    1. Michele Author says:

      Hi Elayne! It will depend on your serving dishes but the recipe will make approximately 3 cups (24 ounces) of panna cotta. I used small serving dishes so this made 6 servings for me. Hope that helps, Michele

  4. Just so you know…I have made this several times now for company. It is ridiculously easy, you can make it the day before and who doesn’t love caramel!!!
    Your caramel recipe is now my go to whenever I want a caramel sauce.I love that it is thinner and drizzles perfectly!! Thank you for sharing!!

    1. Michele Author says:

      Many thanks Linda!! I make it often as well….super easy. Thank you for taking the time to comment! A presto, Michele

  5. Jerri Dumas says:

    I need to double this is it best to do it separately or can I do it all together??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Our Italian Table © Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.