Grapefruit and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

Grapefruit and Vanilla Panna Cotta

I feel like it’s only fair for me to warn you about this panna cotta. It’s not for everyone. The first taste brings a powerful intensity of grapefruit flavor—tart and more than a little bitter—followed by the smooth, sweet, vanilla-scented cream. For me, this marriage of tart and sweet, bitter and smooth, is completely addictive. My friend Devon, a wonderful pastry chef, taught me that not all panna cotta has to be made of milk and cream. You can replace some of the dairy in a panna cotta with fruit juice for a lighter, fresher taste and texture, as I do here. Be sure to use a grapefruit juice with no added sugar or flavorings. If you would prefer another flavor, nearly any juice will do—apple, grape, cranberry. You can even use iced green tea.–Faith Durand

LC Bakeless Sweets Note

In addition to everything else this lovely little recipe has going for it, there’s something else that hasn’t been mentioned yet. It requires no oven, making it an easy option for crazy holidays when the stove is already spoken for as well as casual summer entertaining.

Grapefruit and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

  • Quick Glance
  • Quick Glance
  • 15 M
  • 2 H, 25 M
  • Serves 6
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Special Equipment: Ramekins or dessert glasses



Pour the grapefruit juice into a small saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Set the pan aside, off the heat, for 5 minutes to allow the gelatin to soften.

Place the pan of grapefruit and gelatin over medium heat and warm it gently, stirring constantly, until the gelatin is fully dissolved. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, warm the cream and sugar in a separate saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is fully dissolved. If using the vanilla bean, split it and scrape the seeds into the pan and toss the pod in as well, then whisk to incorporate. If using vanilla extract, do not add it yet. Remove from the heat and let the mixture steep for 5 minutes.

Whisk the grapefruit juice and gelatin mixture into the cream mixture. Taste to check sweetness; if necessary, add more sugar. Stir in the salt, ginger, and vanilla extract, if using, and whisk vigorously. Remove the vanilla bean pod if needed. Taste and adjust the amount of ginger accordingly.

Divide the panna cotta mixture among 6 ramekins or dessert glasses. Loosely cover the panna cotta with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight, especially if you plan to unmold it. (The panna cotta can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.) If desired, garnish each serving with a peeled segment of grapefruit and a short sprig of mint.

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Recipe Testers' Tips

Wow! The panna cotta is certainly tart (and is a beautiful color!) thanks to that lovely pink grapefruit juice, but the sweet cream finish is just delightful. It reminds me a bit of a grown-up version of a Creamsicle—if a Creamsicle was made with grapefruit. Since I’m not the biggest grapefruit fan, I knew I’d need to add more sugar, which I did after stirring in the salt and ginger. I added an additional tablespoon sugar, and I think I could’ve added another plus a wee bit more ginger. I used vanilla extract and I wonder if I wouldn’t have needed to add extra sugar had I used a vanilla bean. I also found that I enjoyed the panna cotta more after refrigerating it overnight, as its tart edge mellowed just a bit. I’ll definitely make this again, but I’ll probably use freshly squeezed orange juice for a full-on Creamsicle experience.

While I appreciate the warning that accompanies this recipe, I don’t feel that it’s necessary. The combination of vanilla and citrus pairs together very naturally and deliciously. The flavors were incredibly well-balanced and I think they were great for the warmer months. I’m not a dessert maker, as I usually feel like spending my time making something for dinner versus something for after dinner, but there’s almost no hands-on time with this recipe, and it’s better if it sets up overnight. There’s no need to be intimidated by panna cotta. I halved the recipe, and therefore cut the amount of gelatin in half, yet my desserts refused to set up completely; in the future I’ll still use the full amount of gelatin regardless of how large a batch I make. I used a whole vanilla bean, and I think this was crucial for that pure vanilla flavor to shine through; plus, all those little specks of vanilla just look nice. This is a fairly straightforward, simple recipe that can be played around with in the flavor department. Clearly I’m one of those few who this dessert was made for.

I’ve been wanting to make panna cotta for quite a while and jumped at the chance to test it. This is a dessert that’s a snap to put together with ordinary pantry items. I made the recipe as directed and my testers found it to be quite refreshing. There was that initial sharp/tart taste of grapefruit. The second spoonful wasn’t as sharp and the subtle taste of vanilla hit your tongue then. It was creamy and not cloying. I’ll definitely make this again and try different flavorings. For a newbie who’s never used gelatin, I think the directions should’ve included how long you warmed and stirred the gelatin—was it 30 seconds or 5 minutes? At least approximate the time. I did increase the sugar by 2 tablespoons because the grapefruit juice was a little too bitter when I tasted it. Also, the addition of the ginger did nothing to enhance the recipe. The grapefruit and vanilla overpowered it. Overall, it was a very refreshing summer dessert.

This recipe was quick and easy to make. For the “granulated sugar” I used white castor sugar, which dissolved easily. Step 2 didn’t make it very clear how warm the cream and sugar mixture should be, so I heated it until the cream was scalding, or just below the boiling point. The panna cotta set well and was able to be turned out onto a plate after a few hours in the fridge, retaining the characteristic wobble when turned out. To maintain a good shape, I’d recommend setting the panna cotta in a tallish narrow container, rather than a wider shallow one, as the latter produces a panna cotta that splays under its own weight. I thought that the resulting panna cotta had a good taste and was appropriately sweet.

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