Italian kitchen cream

Got back yesterday evening from our little Labor Day sally and, because I hadn’t bothered to do any grocery shopping before we left on Thursday, found very little in the fridge. Fortunately, not much was needed to turn out a satisfying dinner: half a wedge of gorgonzola dolce, a bit of grated Parmigiano, a box of Italian cream (panna da cucina)…

Spaghetti alla gorgonzola

(Now that I know how to add pictures to this blog, I took a pic with my phone camera of the sauce while it was cooking – not great, but it gives something of an idea of what the sauce looks like).

1. Empty a box of panna da cucina into a pan over low heat. Crumble in about a third of a cup of gorgonzola and a third of a cup of grated Parmigiano. Allow cheeses to gently melt into the panna, stirring every now and then, and turn off flame when the sauce has achieved a uniform consistency.

2. Meanwhile, boil salted water and cook spaghetti al dente.

3. Toss drained spaghetti into gorgonzola sauce. Serve immediately.

Italian kitchen cream: what, where, why?

Although not used excessively, most Italians I know keep a box or two of panna stashed in their pantries – just in case. It’s one of those perfect ingredients that not only possess a relatively long shelf life, but help produce elegant, luscious meals in seconds. If you’ve never cooked with it (or, for that matter, never heard of it), here’s a dollop of info to get you started.

“Panna” is the Italian word for “cream” and in Italy there are two kinds of panna: “panna da cucina” and “panna da montare”. Panna da cucina can roughly be translated as “kitchen cream” while panna da montare translates as “whipping cream”. The two pannas are quite different: panna da montare is more liquidy, is generally used only in sweet dishes, contains a higher percentage of fat (minimum 35%), and, at least in Italy, is typically only pasteurized. Panna da cucina, on the other hand, is generally used in savory dishes, contains less fat (minimum 20%), and is almost always ultra-pasteurized (UHT).

Although it’s stocked in grocery stores throughout Italy, panna da cucina is an ingredient most typically found in the cooking of the northern regions where it is used as a thickening agent and as a base for sauces. It’s usually sold in 200 ml squeezy-soft boxes both in Italy and abroad, and, because it’s UHT, it is usually stocked with dry goods rather than in the refrigerated sections.

Mona Lisa, the Italian mercatino perched at the northern edge of Little Italy in San Diego, is the only local place I know of that regularly stocks panna da cucina (FYI San Diegesi: it’s usually stacked in the aisle close to the register, near the jars of anchovies and pesto). My source in New England (that would be my brother but he doesn’t appreciate me talking about him in my blog so just pretend I didn’t mention him) tells me that stores in Connecticut and New York City stock it regularly. It can also sometimes be purchased online.

A word about substitutions

Panna da cucina has a consistency similar to crème fraiche – thick and succulent – but contains less fat and, unlike crème fraiche, is not fermented. Because of these differences, panna and crème fraiche don’t function as effective substitutes for each other. Similarly, panna da cucina and mascarpone have comparable consistencies, but mascarpone is, of course, a cheese, and is tangier and sweeter than panna, so it, too, would not be a viable substitute for panna. (Theoretically, if you added a bit of caster sugar to panna da cucina, it could substitute for mascarpone, but you wouldn’t get that tang that makes dishes made with Mascarpone so special). Finally, panna da cucina is much thicker than American “heavy cream” or “whipping cream” so they also don’t make great substitutes for panna. In short, there’s really no product on the market that substitutes well for panna da cucina.

Recipes: where you’ll need panna, and where you won’t

Before moving back to the States, I’d never heard of a dish called “Fettucine Alfredo”. Based on what I’ve been told about it, I suspect it’s nothing more than a weird mutation of pasta al burro (pasta with butter), but frankly I’m not sure. What I do know is that, as paradoxical as it might sound, a creamy pasta sauce can be made without panna: you just need high-fat butter (I said it would be creamy, not fat-free). Here’s how it’s done.

Pasta al burro

1. Cook the pasta according to manufacturer’s directions. If you live in Southern California or anywhere where the tap water is more chlorine than H2O, use bottled water to cook the pasta or risk tasting nothing more than chlorine in this delicate-tasting dish.

2. In a sauté pan, plop a few hefty pats of French or Italian (high-fat) butter and melt over a low flame. Don’t brown or burn, please. Once melted, stir a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water from the pasta into the butter and emulsify. Toss the drained pasta into this butter/starchy-water emulsion, keeping the flame low. Now toss in a generous helping of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Mix well.

The resulting sauce will look and taste luscious and creamy, but with a few less calories and without the heaviness of panna. (In Italy, this dish is usually served to people who are feeling under the weather and need or want to eat light. When my mother flies in from Rome, I make this for her first meal since she invariably feels ill after the long flight. But it’s also perfect as a delicate entrée on a hot day or anytime you don’t feel like slaving at the stove).

Farfalline al salmone
Serves 4

The first time I had this was in Siena when I was a bambina. My father, who loves salmon, had ordered it, and my mother, who hates salmon, turned her nose up when he did. Naturally, I just had to order it as well. It’s been a favorite of mine since (though Ale, like my mother, doesn’t care for it).

1 small filet of salmon, steamed and chopped
2 small cloves garlic, crushed
1 package of panna da cucina
1 tbsp. Italian or French butter
Butterfly pasta (farfalline) – or other similar dried pasta

1. Heat butter in a pan over low flame; add crushed garlic and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the chopped salmon. Cover, allowing the aroma of the garlic to enhance the flavor of the salmon. After a few minutes, remove the garlic and stir panna into mixture. Continue to cook over a low flame for a few more minutes, until completely warm, then turn off heat and cover.

2. Cook pasta according to manufacturer’s directions. Drain.

3. Gently toss farfalline into salmon sauce. Serve immediately (preferably without Parmigiano).

Filetto al pepe verde
4 persons

Darned if I can remember where I got this recipe, but it’s absolutely fabulous – appetizing and elegant and EASY!

4 filets mignons
1 tbsp. crushed green pepper (crush just before using)
1 tbsp. olive oil
4 tsp. brandy
1 tbsp. mustard (Dijon is nice)
4 tbsp. panna da cucina

1. Press crushed pepper into both sides of each filet.

2. In a frying pan, melt a few pats of butter over medium-high to high heat (heat depends on the pan you’re using). Add filets and cook on each side about 3 to 4 minutes.

3. When the steaks are cooked, flambé with brandy.

4. Remove pan from heat, add panna and mustard and stir together until a little sauce has formed (about half a minute).

5. Serve immediately.

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