The panna cotta that wasn’t

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Today I planned to tell you about a panna cotta recipe with burnt caramel and candied chili pepper. It was going to be beautiful, super photogenic, a little retro, and waaay out of my comfort zone. I wanted a delicate panna cotta with a big wobble, but even after eight hours in the fridge it collapsed to a shapeless puddle. I tried for a glossy, dark and bitter caramel, but I cooked it too long and it hardened almost immediately. The candied chili pepper looked less like the sculptural tangle of red ribbons I’d anticipated and more like a tangle of red seaweed. In short, I bit off more than I could chew. And I burned my hands. Both of them.

Oh well. You win some.

The culprit (besides me) was not the stove, a hot pan, or the oven. It was a red Thai chili pepper, also known as The Devil.

I know better. I’ve ruined contact lenses by touching my eyes after slicing hot peppers. I’ve always had sensitive skin, and my raw palms scream bloody murder upon contact with acidic or spicy foods. I don’t have detectable fingerprints, just permanently pruney fingertips. Theoretically, I could rob a bank without getting caught, except that I would get caught because I’d probably forget to wear a ski mask.

I was midway through de-seeding The Devil this week when the burn spread across my palms like wildfire. I stopped and dug out a pair of plastic gloves from under the sink, gloves I’d bought specifically to protect my hands. But by then the damage was done. I finished with the peppers and put them in a pot of water and sugar, lit a flame underneath, and swore. My roommate was home, and for the second time this week I was eternally grateful not only not to be living alone, but to be living with her.

While Mimsie googled remedies, I reached for a quick fix.

“Is this a suggested remedy, per chance?” I stood in the doorway of our living room, a cold unopened bottle of soju in one hand, a cold glass of beer filled to the brim in the other.

“I don’t see that here, no. But try milk. And yogurt.”

I shrugged, took a long swig of beer, and filled a cup with milk. I plunged both hands into it, sloshing milk over the sides and onto my lap. The burn went away in an instant, but after a minute it returned, this time fiercer than before.

“Try scrubbing your hands with salt. You’ve got to get the capsaicin off your skin.” Mimie went to nursing school, and she’s got this no-nonsense way of taking care in situations that require exactly that.

I poured salt into my hands, scrubbed, then coated them with olive oil, all to no avail. The pain was still there, worse even. In an effort to reach for perspective, I thought of childbirth, because however much pain I was in, it was certainly nothing compared to that. To the men out there, I wonder – what do you imagine to try to soothe a physically painful situation? A swift kick in the balls? The difference is that not every woman knows the pain of childbirth; we can only imagine it. But most men know the sensation of being kicked in the balls, and few would likely prefer to re-visit the experience. Maybe this is not a fair analogy.

“Toothpaste! It’s a Thai remedy,” Mimsie informed. It had to work. If Thais had a remedy for Thai pepper burns, maybe this wasn’t such a heedless mistake after all.

I rushed to the bathroom and fumbled around while my toothbrush took a swan dive from the top shelf to the open toilet bowl. I fished it out and didn’t tell Mimsie about it. Instead, I squeezed out a glob of toothpaste and yelled at Thailand, the whole country.

“Ohhh GODDD! What are they THINKING!” My resentment of the nation, their agronomy, and their hokey remedies had reached the apex, naturally, because who else could I blame for my negligence?

I could feel a heartbeat in the tips of my fingers, which by then looked like red licorice nibs. But sweet mercy, I was starting to feel a buzz.

All cures exhausted, there was one thing left to do. Wait. I would sit in the dark in my room with my palms turned upward and be one with the pain while I waited for the beer to take full effect. I unrolled my yoga mat, turned out the light, and popped in my headphones. I slept with oil-filled plastic gloves on my hands that night. In the morning there was an oil stain next to my pillow. For breakfast, I ate the panna cotta, and my hands were as smooth as the rump of a newborn baby.

This week, it’s back to the panna cotta. Slower this time, and with nary a hot pepper in sight.