A good panna cotta is as good as dessert gets, and it comes together quickly and easily. It should also have just enough gelatin so that it seems the cream is barely holding together. Make the panna cottas the night before you plan to serve so all you have to do is unmold them and arrange whatever fruit you have on hand around them at the last minute.
Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Stir to distribute, then let stand 2 to 3 minutes to soften.
Wipe the insides of eight 4-ounce ramekins with a light coating of oil and place on a baking sheet. Half-fill a large bowl with ice and add enough water to make an ice bath.
In a small saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar, split vanilla bean and seeds and salt, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, and whisk in the softened gelatin (and the vanilla extract, if using); discard the vanilla bean pod.
Set the saucepan in the ice bath (making sure the top of the saucepan is well above the surface of the water), and whisk until the mixture is lukewarm. Rub your fingers together: There should be no grit from undissolved sugar or gelatin. Ladle the mixture into the oiled ramekins and chill at least 4 hours or overnight.
About 10 minutes before serving, run a thin-bladed knife around the inside of the ramekin. Dip the ramekin briefly in a bowl of hot tap water, and then carefully invert onto a serving plate. If the panna cotta doesn’t unmold right away, tap the ramekin lightly on the countertop to loosen it. If it still doesn’t unmold, return it to the hot water bath for another five seconds and repeat. Panna cotta can also be served without unmolding.
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