Panna cotta is a dessert from northern Italy made of cream, sugar, milk and gelatin that is simmered and then cooled into a delicious custard-like substance that is usually topped with fresh berries or a chocolate or caramel sauce. I have had it many times in my life but until last week I had never tried to sell it as a special. Each moment that it became time for me to announce the dessert specials, I rattled them off with ease.
“Tonight we have a flourless chocolate cake that is served with warm chocolate sauce and topped with fresh whipped cream and raspberries. We also have a banana bread pudding that is served warm with a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream and a salted caramel sauce. Finally, I have for you this evening a panna cotta served with a blueberry coulis and fresh strawberries and then garnished with a sprig of mint. If I liked one more than the other I would recommend it, but I truly adore all three of them. What can I get for you tonight?”
My first several tables all make their decisions with ease.
“Oh, let’s get the chocolate cake and split it!”
“Oh my God, banana bread pudding with salted caramel sauce?? Yes, please!”
“My New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. I’ll just take the check.”
It isn’t until mid-way through my shift that someone gives me pause.
“What’s panna cotta?”
Now, had I already looked up the clear and concise definition of panna cotta that I offered at the top of this blog post, all would be fine. However, I did not have my phone on me, for it against the rules to have a cell phone on the floor which is why mine was safely stored on the top shelf over the coffee maker and under a napkin so I had easy access to send out random tweets, play Words With Friends and take the occasional photo.
I quickly realize that although I have eaten panna cotta on several occasions and kinda know what it is, I do not have a good description of it that I can simply spout out.
“Panna cotta is a… it’s a custard, but it’s different. Ummm, do you know what flan is? No? Well, it’s a little bit like flan but different… It has a gelatin in it, I know that, but it’s not like it’s Jello or anything. It’s really good. Panna cotta is um…um…”
And then come the words that no one should ever use when describing panna cotta or any other dessert for that matter.
“It’s like a gelatinous pudding.”
I see the faces at table 16 recoil in horror at the the thought of a pudding that is of the gelatinous nature. Honestly, would you order a dessert that has the word “gelatinous” attached to it? Of course not. They probably are picturing a pudding that has sat in the sun for two days and is lumpy and indigestible. Wikipedia defines gelatin as “a translucent, colorless, brittle, flavorless solid substance, derived from collagen obtained from various animal by-products. It is commonly used as a gelling agent in food, pharmaceuticals, photography, and cosmetic manufacturing.” Yes, sign me up for a big heaping bowl of gelatinous pudding, please.
Needless to say, they opted out of the deliciousness that is panna cotta, all because of my lousy description of it.
They decide to skip dessert all together and I would not be surprised if they hurried home to throw up their dinner having now imagined a giant bowl of gelatinous pudding. As soon as they are gone, I hurry to my cell phone to look up the definition of panna cotta so I can describe it correctly next time. I also use that moment to take a picture of an ugly baby that has made a mess with some crackers.
I learned three things that night. Number one: just because I have eaten something does not mean I know how to describe it so it sounds appetizing to my guests. Number two: don’t assume that everyone is going to know what every dessert is. Number three: when taking a picture of an ugly baby who has made a mess, make sure the flash is turned off. Awkward…