This recipe first appeared in the Virginia Wine Gazette. Peppers (aka chiles) and chocolate are products of the Americas – unknown in Europe until the Spanish conquistadors brought them home in the 16th century. Can you imagine Belgium or Switzerland without chocolate? Calabrian or Greek …
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.