The Best No-Cook, Make-Ahead Dessert for the 4th of July

Top view on homemade white vanilla pudding with raspberries and blackberries and blueberries

Some of us are ice cream people through and through. You can put us in front of a buffet stacked with pies, cakes, trifles, puddings, and cookies, and we’ll dig through them all, locate the one sad pint of vanilla ice cream in the back, and abscond with it like the Hamburglar.

But Fourth of July presents dessert … challenges. You’ve got everyone clustered around the grill, sprawled on the grass, or hopping from foot to foot on the blacktop. People are hot. Ice cream melts in the sun, so that’s out unless you want to do the is-it-melting-or-is-it-fine dance of running it back and forth to the freezer. And no way are you turning on that glowering oven to make a pie or cake.

You could set out fruit, sure; berries and stone fruit are gorgeous this time of year. But invariably some small child will poke her nose over the edge of the buffet table and sadly ask, “What’s for dessert?” So consider the simplest dessert: Make panna cotta.

Panna cotta—Italian for “cooked cream”—is right up there with cannoli as one of Italy’s great contributions to America. It is somehow light and decadent at once, silky and creamy. An eggless custard, some consider it a more elegant rendition of pudding. At American restaurants, you’ll usually see it molded, then plated in a moat of strawberry sauce or caramel. In Italy, it might come garnished with a hint of peach eau de vie, lemon, or rum.

However you do decide to dress it up, the secret to panna cotta for a crowd is abandoning its chichi presentation, using a big 9-by-13 glass baking dish, and setting it out for people to scoop their own. Put out a big bowl of macerated fruits or berries—I like strawberries, but you could use peaches, blueberries, passionfruit, or whatever looks good at the market—and let folks top their servings. The best part? That fruit will take you 10 minutes to set up, so you can do all the work in advance. I guarantee you that after the heavy dogs, burgers, and steaks of the day, people will be grateful for something that goes down light and bright.

When you serve the dessert just make sure it’s in a cool spot, perhaps on a cold salt block or set into a serving tray filled with crushed ice, so it doesn’t melt super-fast. (It’s no ice cream, but it does lose its jiggly, sultry texture rather quickly.) Here’s the recipe I love most (it must be made one night in advance), but experiment to find your own favorite.

Panna Cotta with Strawberries and Balsamic

Adapted from Epicurious

Makes: 6-8 servings

2 Tbsp. water

1¼ tsp. unflavored gelatin

1¼ cups plain whole-milk or Greek yogurt

2 cups whipping cream

1 tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup sugar

2 1-pint baskets strawberries, hulled, thinly sliced

3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 Tbsp. sugar

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

For panna cotta:

Pour 2 tablespoons water into small bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over water. Let stand until softened, about 15 minutes.

Whisk yogurt, 1 cup cream, and vanilla in large bowl to blend. In small saucepan over medium heat, heat remaining 1 cup cream, and ½ cup sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves and cream comes to a simmer. Allow to simmer for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.

Add gelatin to cream mixture, stirring to dissolve gelatin. Cool for 30 seconds. Mix hot cream-gelatin mixture into yogurt mixture in bowl. Pour mixture into a 9-x-13 glass baking dish, or divide mixture among six ¾-cup ramekins, using about 1/2 cup for each. Refrigerate desserts, covered with plastic wrap, overnight.

For strawberries:

Gently toss strawberries, vinegar, sugar and pepper in large bowl. Let stand 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set out large baking dish of panna cotta with a serving spoon, or unmold each panna cotta from its ramekin: Run a paring knife around the top inner edge of ramekin, then dip bottom of ramekin in a bowl of boiling water for 10 seconds. Invert ramekin onto serving plate. Holding ramekin tightly to plate, shake firmly to release panna cotta. Spoon strawberries over or alongside panna cotta. Serve.

Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.

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