Panna Cotta means “cooked cream”, but you can make one using half-and-half too. Chef Deborah Madison adds a little vanilla bean for its flavor (and the little specks it leaves on the surface) but to make this a truly fall dish–serve it drizzled with caramel and a few cracked walnuts.
½ vanilla bean, slit lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 envelope plain gelatin
Walnuts or other favorites nuts, freshly cracked
Warm the half and half with the sugar, salt and vanilla bean, if using. Bring it slowly just to a boil, then turn off the heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Press the vanilla bean against the side of the pan with a spoon or knife to force out the tiny seeds, then remove and set it aside. (Use it to flavor sugar once dried.) If using vanilla extract, add it at the very end of the process.
While the half-and-half is heating, sprinkle the gelatin over ¼ cup water and let it sit five minutes to soften. Once the half-and-half is heated and the vanilla bean has been removed, stir in the softened gelatin and stir so that it is thoroughly blended.
Divide the custard among six -½ cup ramekins—or use four if you wish larger portions—then put in the refrigerator to set, a matter of several hours or overnight.
To serve, dip each cream in hot water to loosen, then turn out onto a plate. If it doesn’t come easily, carefully run a knife along the edge of the cream, then try again. If it comes out on the edge of your plate, move it with a cake server to where you want it.
Drizzle with warm caramel syrup and serve with a few freshly cracked nuts.