Become a better cook, then show off your skills. This 12-week series will give you the tools you need to make a meal you’re proud to share with friends.

When I began my culinary journey, learning to prepare desserts was a relatively low priority on a list that began with: “Try to cook dinner without setting your kitchen on fire.”

As the years have progressed, dessert has gained a whole new meaning for me.
I now find baking to be so relaxing, as I mentioned in the Week 8 bread newsletter. Whereas cooking is often about experimentation and developing one’s palate, preparing dessert will calm me down after a stressful week.
Dessert doesn’t have to be fancy, time-consuming or complicated, especially when you’re learning the basics or serving a multicourse dinner. It can be as simple as a bowl of seasonal berries with freshly whipped cream, or store-bought ice cream topped with melted chocolate.

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Today, we’re talking about three basic dessert concepts to get you started: semi-homemade shortcuts, make-ahead desserts and presentation tricks. We’ll also review balancing flavors and how to apply what you’ve already learned to sweet recipes.     
For today’s recipe, I’m sharing one of my favorite make-ahead desserts: panna cotta. It has a fancy name, but it couldn’t be easier! With a few minutes of hands-on time and basic kitchen equipment, you’ll have a beautiful treat that’s guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser.

And a reminder: Next week is Week 12, which means I’ll be giving you your full dinner party menu, highlighting the flavors and techniques you’ve learned during this series. After this week, you’ll have everything you need to prepare an amazing meal for friends or family. (Hint: It might be time to pick a date and send around invites so you can wow your friends with your new kitchen skills.)

But first … dessert!

<Scroll ahead to see the recipe for Buttermilk Panna Cotta With Macerated Strawberries>

You're allowed to take shortcuts

Believe it or not, dessert provides the easiest "cheat" opportunities in your menu. There are many ways to jazz up desserts from your local bakery or grocery store and subtle ways to make them more exciting than a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s (which I’ll always love on its own after “one of those days”).
Macerated strawberries, which I’m covering in today’s recipe, are a quick homemade topping you can spoon over ice cream or store-bought pound cake. For a creamy topping to serve with ready-made desserts, consider whisking sugar into heavy cream, mascarpone cheese or sour cream. If you want to add crunch, try sprinkling chopped candied nuts — either store-bought or homemade — over ice cream or fruit.

Make it ahead and breathe easier

Anything you can prepare a day or two before a dinner party is a bonus. It will free up your time and your kitchen, so you can devote both to the rest of your meal prep when it’s go-time.
In addition to panna cotta, you can’t go wrong with cookies, brownies or blondies. Chocolate mousse is another great option. No-churn ice creams and granitas are worth consideration if you want a refreshing, frozen treat.
Reminder: We’ve already given you baking tips that will help guide you along the way. 

Don't be afraid to mix it up

Salted caramel has become a popular dessert flavor. Chocolate-dipped pretzels are awesome. I once tried a killer popcorn-flavored ice cream. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.)
The reason these flavors work so well is because they incorporate salt. I love the combination of salty and sweet in my desserts. I also go straight for citrus-based desserts because of the acidity: Key lime pie, lemon curd, etc. (For a quick and easy summer dessert, try these Key lime pie popsicles).
If you’re up for an experiment, do a side-by-side taste test of different chocolates. Start with bittersweet (something labeled around 70 percent cocoa solids), followed by semisweet, milk chocolate, and finally, white chocolate. In my opinion, bittersweet chocolate has the most well-balanced flavor profile.
To quickly balance an overly sweet dessert, try grating or shaving a bit of bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate on top (use a cheese grater, Microplane zester or vegetable peeler). You can also add a pinch of salt.

Coarse or flaky salts are excellent for adding balance to a sweet dessert, and they'll give you a bit of crunch as well. Just sprinkle a pinch on top of your cookies, brownies or blondies.

Dress it up a little

Have you ever heard the phrase “we eat with our eyes first”? It’s true! If something is served beautifully, it will actually taste better. Presentation can give any dessert a wow factor. A couple suggestions:

  • Add a fresh element – berries, an herb, etc. It goes a long way to kick up your presentation with minimal effort.
  • Top with grated/shaved chocolate, a drizzle of flavored honey or one of the creamy toppings I mentioned above.
  • Try using a fancy or unique serving glass, such as stemware or a Mason jar. Or use a colorful serving dish, something that contrasts with the food. (For example: chocolate ice cream in a white dish.)
  • Take a moment to wipe up any splatters or crumbs from the edges of the serving dish.

Panna what?

If you can heat liquid on your stovetop and pour it into a bowl, you can make a panna cotta.

So what the heck is it?
Panna cotta is an Italian dessert (which translates to “cooked cream”) that consists of a lightly sweetened cream that’s set with a bit of gelatin. It’s often served with a fruit-based topping or sweet sauce, such as chocolate or caramel. 
Dissolve sugar in warm cream (milk/non-dairy milk can also be used). Combine with unsweetened gelatin, and then pour the mixture into molds (cups, wine glasses, ramekins, etc) and chill in the refrigerator until it’s set.
The cream can be plain or infused with flavors (extracts, liquors, etc.). I’ve added some buttermilk to this recipe for a sour element, but it can be omitted to simplify the recipe even more.
Traditionally, panna cotta is unmolded before serving. However, I never bother. I serve it straight from the refrigerator topped with some macerated or roasted berries. Fast, simple and ready to go when I need it.
A brief note on macerated berries: When you toss berries with sugar, the sugar will extract the juice and soften the berries in 30 to 45 minutes with the occasional stir. They can be prepared a day or two in advance.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta With Macerated Strawberries

4 servings

HANDS-ON TIME: 10 minutes
COOK TIME: 5 minutes
EQUIPMENT: Dry and liquid measuring cups and spoons, cutting board, paring knife, medium bowl, medium saucepan, spatula, whisk, serving glasses

For the strawberries
8 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 to 2 tablespoons sugar (use 1 tablespoon when the berries are especially ripe and sweet)

For the panna cotta
2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin (from 1 envelope/packet)
1 tablespoon lukewarm water
1 1/2 cups heavy cream or half-and-half (see NOTES, below)
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups regular or low-fat buttermilk

For the strawberries: Place the strawberries in a medium bowl, sprinkle the sugar over them and toss to coat. Let sit for 30 minutes, stirring a couple times along the way, until the strawberries are soft and juicy. This can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days in advance.
For the panna cotta: Place the gelatin in a large bowl (ideally one with a spout) or quart-size liquid measuring cup, then stir in the water. Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes. The gelatin will become thick and spongy.
Combine the cream and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Pour into the bowl with the gelatin, whisking until the gelatin has thoroughly dissolved. Then, whisk in the buttermilk and vanilla extract.
Divide the mixture evenly among individual serving glasses (juice or wine glasses work, as well as small Mason jars). Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, until set and chilled, and up to overnight.
Just before serving, spoon the macerated strawberries and their juices on top of each cup. Serve chilled.
NOTES: Any dairy will work in panna cotta, so you can choose to make it more or less rich based on preference. For a lighter take, whole milk would also work in place of the cream. This recipe yields 4 servings, but could also be portioned into 5 or 6 smaller servings depending on the number of guests and whether you’re serving other desserts. 
VARIATION: For a boozy twist, add 1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau, to the strawberries along with the sugar.

Show us your sweets!

We want to see your panna cotta, however it turned out! Follow us on Instagram at @eatvoraciously and share your photos of this recipe using #eatvoraciously. In addition to featuring your photo in an upcoming newsletter, we'll be awarding a Team Voraciously T-shirt to one lucky winner who posts a photo of any recipe from the series and includes #eatvoraciously in the caption.

Coming up next week: The dinner party menu.

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Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10