Ah, dessert. For some it’s the pièce de resistance, the most anticipated part of the meal. But for others-and it can be quite comical to watch-dessert is greeted with feigned reluctance, followed by a slight hint of acceptance, and finally by total surrender, as dinner guests-wishing to be polite, of course-hesitantly succumb to the lure of their menacing sweet tooth.

Having only an occasional inclination to the aforementioned temptation, I favor desserts that are simple yet unequivocally satisfying. Oddly, one of the best desserts I have ever had has eluded me for the many years I’ve been in the kitchen until last week, when Chef Peggy Ryan, my colleague and chef of the Fine Dining Room at Kendall College gave me a taste of her wonderful rendition of Panna Cotta, a light, eggless custard with a silky, smooth texture that is mischievously irresistible.

Panna Cotta simply means “cooked cream” in Italian, and it’s also the easiest dessert-outside of simply dishing up a scoop of vanilla ice cream-that I’ve ever prepared. Often served with caramel or chocolate sauce and fresh berries, I’m sure you’ll want to make it yourself, once you’ve tried Chef Ryan’s recipe for Panna Cotta con Saba, or Cream Custard with Red Wine Syrup.

2 cups heavy whipping cream

1 cup milk

1 cup sugar*

1 small lemon peel

¼ ounce Knox unflavored gelatin (1 envelope)

2 oz cold water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

1 pint fresh strawberries

In a small mixing bowl, soften the gelatin by adding it to the cold water

In a heavy sauce pan, bring the cream, milk, sugar and lemon peel quickly up to a boil

Immediately remove the pan from the heat and add the softened gelatin

Stir gently until the gelatin is dissolved

Add the teaspoon of vanilla, if using

Strain the mixture into a stainless steel mixing bowl

Place the mixing bowl over an ice water bath and stir until cool

Divide the mixture among four 5-6 ounce ramekins or soup cups that have been lightly oiled with any neutral vegetable oil

Refrigerate until the mixture sets, about 2-3 hours

Run a wet knife around the edge of the ramekin or soup cup and unmold the Panna Cotta onto a small serving plate

Serve with quartered strawberries tossed with the red wine syrup

*Depending on your taste for sweetness, you may want to reduce the amount of sugar from 1 cup to ½ cup, as I have done with great success.

Saba (Red Wine Syrup)

3 cups dry red wine

1 cup sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

12 whole black peppercorns

6 whole cloves

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive sauce pan and boil until the mixture reaches a syrup consistency.

Strain out the spices.


For an interesting variation, replace half of the cream (1½ cups) with 1½ cups of mango pulp from two ripe fresh mangos. If fresh mangos are not available, canned mango pulp works well as a substitute.

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Frank Chlumsky

Frank Chlumsky, former executive chef of Philander's restaurant in Oak Park, teaches in Chicago at Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts. In his 37-year career, Frank has owned restaurants in Michigan...