I love a good baked custard – or flan as we call in France (which is not the same as a Spanish flan – maybe a post for another day). And although the last few days have been warm, the down spiraling leaves are letting us know – in no uncertain terms – that cooler times are coming. As a matter of fact, they are supposed to sweep through the area Saturday with near freezing temperature. The next two days are going to be spent in a frenzy of tasks that should have been accomplished weeks ago: digging up the banana trees, moving into the greenhouse all the tender plants I want to keep over the winter, pick up the last of the tomatoes (and up-root the now unsightly plants), harvest all the remaining basil and turn it into pesto… Fat chance of being able to even accomplish half of it!
But at least, on Saturday, as the evening gets really chilly, I can console myself with a nice little flan. Easy to make, it only requires a few ingredients, so it makes sense to get the best ingredients you can: whole local organic milk from pastured cows, fresh fat farm eggs from free-range chicken allowed to roam in the pasture to forage for at least part of their food – and real vanilla bean.
Do you know that this orchid (yes, vanilla beans are the fruit of an orchid) originates from Mexico? When it was exported to other countries in the hope of producing vanilla and break the Spanish monopoly – in the 18th century – growers were very disappointed that they could not get the orchid flower to fruit (it’s because the orchid needs a specialized pollinator endemic to Mexico). It was not until a slave figured how to manually fertilize vanilla in the early 19th century on French Bourbon Island in the Indian Ocean (now Reunion) that the culture of vanilla took off in so many different places around the world. Bourbon Vanilla now comes from Madagascar, Reunion, Mauritius and I believe some of the Comoros Islands. Growers on Reunion are trying to establish international recognition for their vanilla – for cultural, historical, agricultural and culinary reasons.
No matter the origin of your vanilla bean, ensure it’s plump for maximum flavor.
For my custard, especially at this time of the year, I like to add a touch of maple syrup (from not too far Pennsylvania), and so that gives us Maple Vanilla Bean Baked Custard.
Maple Vanilla Bean Baked Custard
- 1 quart whole milk (1 liter), preferably organic from pastured cow
- 4 whole large eggs, preferably from truly free-range chicken
- 1 cup sugar, preferably raw sugar
- 1 vanilla bean
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (10 ml)
- ¼ cup maple syrup + 2 Tablespoons (90 ml)
- Preheat oven to 300 F (150 C)
- Put water to boil in a kettle.
- Warm up milk until there are little bubbles on the edge of the pan.
- Meanwhile whisk the eggs with the sugar in a large bowl. When the milk is hot, pour it, at first slowly, in the egg mixture, constantly whisking. The idea is to incorporate the eggs into the milk – not cooked them. Progressively add all the milk, continuing to whisk. Use a hand whisker, not a mixer as the mixer produces foam.
- Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape off as much of the tiny black seeds inside as you can. Add to the egg/milk mixture, then add the vanilla extract. Reserve the rest of the beans for another use *.
- Pour the mixture in a large oven-proof bowl. Place in oven inside a large pan (such as brownie pan or roasting pan or the oven pan). Carefully pour hot water in pan until it reaches 1/3 to ½ way up the bowl.
- Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour until the custard is just set (the middle will slightly wiggles but continues to firm as it cools).
- Remove from oven. Pour maple syrup on top. Let cool.
* Note: I personally like to chew on vanilla bean. So after I scrape the seeds out of it, I sometimes chop it in smaller pieces and add it to the custard to increase the vanilla flavors. Since I am told that chewing on vanilla bean is an acquired taste (that you may not have acquired – go figure!), you can use the remaining bean in sugar (make your own vanilla sugar), to flavor simple syrups, infuse jams, marinate it in vodka to make a light version of vanilla extract (or to just flavor your vodka). Lots of possibility for this lovely spice.