January is a great time for fresh starts and for making changes to improve our health and wellbeing. Well, really, I suppose any time is a great time to harness healthy habits, but the new year is certainly one of the most popular times. I’m guessing many of you readers have made some conscious efforts to reclaim your health since the beginning of the year—starting new exercise routines, watching what you put in your body, cutting back on unhealthy foods and replacing them with more nutritious choices; things like that.
Maybe that’s what brought you to this site in the first place, and if that’s the case: welcome! I hope you find lots of helpful information here to assist you on your journey.
But, if you’ve been reading my posts for a while now, you will know that I am an avid fan of recipe overhauls—using ingredient swaps and substitutions to make delicious food more nutritious and pure, a philosophy that aligns very well with this time of change. And one of my all-time favorite things to overhaul are desserts. I love to take sweet treats, usually full of processed, refined sugars and flours, and turn them into something wholesome, yet indulgent.
I started to think about sugar when I was looking for inspiration for this post. More explicitly, the addictive nature of sugar and the hold it has on so many people. Breaking the sugar cycle is hard, but I have found it to be one of the crucially important steps, possibly even the most advantageous, in any lifestyle change towards greater health. Over the holidays it gets even harder to avoid, and the crazy thing about sugar is, like all addictive substances, the more you eat it, the more you crave it. And the more you give in to the cravings, the harder your body fights back when you finally take its beloved sugar away.
I have a few friends who go on sugar detoxes at the start of each year, and I usually have to do something similar myself (because I LOVE almond toffee!), though gratefully, after years of not eating a whole lot of sweeteners, it’s not nearly as difficult for me as it is for most. But it’s not always easy, either. And I recall how hard it was for me when I first started eliminating undesirable foods from my body, especially releasing myself from the hooks of the sugar demon.
I always started out strong, but then at about day 12 or 15, these intense cravings would hit me like a sack of bricks. This was always most apparent with sugar, more than any other food. And I was not a very fun person to be around at the time, let me tell you…
So, I thought I’d design a treat here for all you folks who love a delectable dessert, reworked to suit a more health-conscious lifestyle. Especially for those of you who might be trying to turn over a new leaf with your sugar intake, and possibly right around that spot in the initial cutback, when the cravings really hit hard.
The easiest sweet treats for revamping and eliminating sugars are items that don’t need the sweetener’s volume or caramelizing capacity. Most of baking—in the form of cakes, pastries, and breads—is chemistry; each ingredient is specifically structured within a recipe, in particular ratios and quantities, for the final product to rise properly and taste good. However, all is not lost when you have a craving for something sweet but have reduced sugars in your diet. Custards, puddings, gelatins, and mousses are man’s best friend in the realm of sugar-free baking, as most don’t rely on the chemical component of sugar within the recipes.
This panna cotta is made with a short list of ingredients and is incredibly quick and easy. The hardest part is waiting for it to set. I used inositol for sweetening, which carries numerous benefits beyond simply a sugar replacement and is easy to use to your taste here. Inositol, also known as B8, is part of the B complex. It is reportedly safe in large doses and has even proven helpful in making insulin more effective.
Stevia, monk-fruit, or any refined sugar substitute you like would be a welcome standby, should inositol not be an option. Some recipes for panna cotta use gelatin for setting it, some use whipped egg whites. To ease up on preparation time and make less dishes to wash, but also because I’m trying to incorporate more collagen into my diet right now, I’ve chosen gelatin here. This allows the dessert to set in mere hours too, a big bonus when the dessert hankering is real.
I use Great Lakes gelatin, a quality product made with grass-fed, naturally raised animals. The dessert is low-carb, keto-friendly, and could even be made dairy-free by using coconut milk instead of cream. Native Forest makes an organic coconut milk without any stabilizer gums, simply coconut and water.
During the cooler months, flavors tend to concentrate around heavier, warmer essences: things like spices, chocolate, and caramel. I thought I’d switch things up a bit and make something a little more refreshing.
This panna cotta is bright and cheerful, evoking nostalgia for warmer months and the light, fruity desserts that accompany them. It’s sinfully silken, indulgent, and because of the high fat content, satisfying in a small serving. Tart lemon offsets the richness a little and plays beautifully with the blackberries. You can even use frozen berries for the sauce, which are often more flavorful than off-season fresh, since they are usually harvested at peak season, harnessing their summer spirit. Raspberries or blueberries would work in a pinch and also pair incredibly with the lemon.
Lemon-Mascarpone Panna Cotta with Blackberry Coulis
Makes 4-6 servings
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Chilling time: about 4 hours
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup mascarpone cheese
½ cup light cream
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons inositol, or to taste. Alternately, use stevia (sparingly), or other sugar alternative of your choice, to taste
1 pinch salt
1 heaping cup fresh or frozen blackberries
Inositol, stevia, or other sweetener, to taste (or eliminate all together, if your palate is happy with the pure sweetness of the berries alone)
- Prepare 4-6 ramekins or other small serving dishes.
- Place ¼ cup light cream in a small bowl and sprinkle gelatin over the top. Set aside for 5 minutes to soften.
- Meanwhile, place heavy cream, mascarpone, and remaining light cream in a small pot. Bring to a simmer.
- Remove from heat and add gelatin mixture. Whisk well until gelatin is completely dissolved.
- Add inositol or other sweetener to your taste. Stir in vanilla, lemon zest, and salt.
- Divide equally among serving dishes. Place in refrigerator until fully set, anywhere from 2-5 hours, depending on the depth of your serving dishes.
- To make blackberry coulis, place blackberries in the bowl of a small food processor or blender and blend until fully pureed. If desired, strain seeds and pulp for a more refined coulis. (I, personally, just keep it rustic and chunky.) If desired, add a little sweetener, to your taste
- Serve panna cotta directly in dish, covered with sauce, or run a hot knife around the edge and invert onto a serving plate, then top with sauce. If the panna cotta is giving you trouble releasing from the dish, you can run hot water over the outside of the dish to soften the gelatin a bit, then invert onto the plate.
Image from Briana Goodall.