Pretty soon basil will be flooding farmers’ markets, overstuffing fridges . . . and launching most home cooks into pesto overdrive. Sure, you can freeze the zesty green stuff, but why not turn the herb into a dish that’s really fresh?! Here, I’ve infused panna cotta with basil and orange zest to give a mint-like lift to the Italian classic. Sound odd? Perhaps. But once you try it, I think you’ll suddenly find basil in extremely short supply! Note: This recipe hails from my James Beard-nominated column for Sauce magazine.

Yield: About five 1/2- to 3/4-cup servings

Prep Talk: Make the panna cotta about 4 to 5 hours before serving to allow it adequate time to chill and set up in the fridge.

  • 3 tablepoons cold water
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons powdered unflavored gelatin (less than 1 package)
  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/3 cup sweet basil leaves (about half 2/3-ounce package, stems removed), torn
  • Zest of 1/2 orange, cut into long strips with a channel zester or paring knife
  • 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon finely minced orange zest
  • 6 ounces premium white chocolate, finely chopped and melted
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup fresh strawberry purée, lightly sweetened
The Antidote to Pesto Overdrive
The Antidote to Pesto Overdrive Photo by Steve Adams


1 | Clean and dry five 8- to 10-ounce wine or martini glasses. Set aside. Pour the cold water into a small bowl that fits a double boiler. Sprinkle the gelatin onto the water and let the mixture sit, without stirring, 5 to 10 minutes until the gelatin has absorbed all of the liquid. (Fight all impulses to stir. You will only create lumps of gelatin that will never completely dissolve.) Set the bowl over simmering water in the double boiler to melt the gelatin. Remove the double boiler from the heat, but leave the melted gelatin over the warm water while you complete Step 2. (You want the gelatin to remain liquid.)

2 | Combine the cream, milk, basil leaves, and orange zest in a non-reactive saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring the mixture to the scalding point. (That is, get it so hot that a skin forms on top, but do not boil it.) Remove from the heat and let the basil and orange zest steep in the cream about 30 minutes.

3 | Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the cream mixture into a bowl to remove the basil and orange zest. Immediately whisk in the melted gelatin, powdered sugar, and remaining minced orange zest. Allow the mixture to cool completely and then gently stir in the melted chocolate and vanilla extract, taking care to stir no longer than just combined. (Note: If the mixture is too warm when you add the chocolate, or if you over-stir, the chocolate can break, and an oily residue will appear at the surface. Once the mixture sets, the oil will form into gritty crystals.) Cover the surface flush with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Set the mixture in the refrigerator about 1 hour, or until it has slightly thickened.

4 | Remove the plastic wrap (along with any mixture that may be clinging to it) and gently whisk to evenly distribute any orange zest that may have settled to the bottom of the bowl. (Note: As the mixture chills, even the slightest amount of broken fat in the chocolate can recrystallize and rise to the surface. Fortunately, the plastic captures these crystals, which is why I discard it, panna cotta film and all. Avoid scraping this film back into the mixture. As I noted before, it can impart a gritty texture that will be more detectable once the panna cotta is completely set.)

5 | Transfer the mixture to a container with a pouring spout and fill the wine glasses slightly less than half full. Spoon a couple tablespoons of strawberry purée into each glass and then fill with the remaining cream mixture. Cover the glasses tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate about 3 to 4 hours until the panna cotta is completely set. Note: Panna cotta is best eaten within a few hours of having fully set; as it chills longer, it can take on a more gelatinous (euphemism for rubbery) consistency.