Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mexico via Kerala

Mexican vanilla and lime flan with macerated strawberries.

At least 12 years ago, I had actually never heard of vanilla beans. For normal baking purposes, the store-bought vanilla essence sufficed and I never bothered to question my mother whether there was anything else that could be used. Then I saw Planet Food Mexico.

Hosted by chef Tyler Florence, it included a tour of Papantla in Veracruz where they pay homage to this flavourful bean during a seven-day festival. As the second most expensive spice in the world, I realised that the little bottles of essence we were using obviously weren't being developed from the fresh beans as they were a cheap buy in the stores.
However, we couldn't source the fresh beans in Bombay. So I went ahead and made the vanilla and lime flan they featured on Planet Food Mexico using the same faux essence and put the case to rest.Then I went off to Canada to study journalism and managed to get my hands on a few beans at my sister's home in Vancouver.  

Deciding on making the flan with the proper ingredients, I slit the bean open and remember inhaling the aroma, realising that the bottled essence didn't even capture 1/10th of the potency or the sweet aroma. The little black specks completely transformed the flavour of the flan - this was vanilla like I had never tasted before. It then dawned on me that the Mexicans have every right to hold the spice in such high regard.  

However, the vanilla bean would elude me again as my student budget when studying in Ottawa wouldn't allow me to splurge. Once again in Dubai they were exorbitantly priced and now we had other things to take care of - like Sean's medication and a car loan - and expensive vanilla beans didn't make the cut. So again the flan was whipped up with vanilla essence for visiting friends and family whenever Sean was allowed a treat once every couple of weeks.  

Walking through the Mapusa Market a couple of weeks ago, it was Sean who spotted the beans (grown in the southern Indian state of Kerala) and immediately decided to buy me a couple. He managed to bargain for six beans just for Rs.100 (US$2.15). Ecstatic to be reunited with the beans again, I knew as soon as I got back to Bombay I would be making the flan again.  

Today we had my cousin Michele and her family over for lunch so it was the perfect opportunity to put the vanilla beans to use. They enjoyed the dense egg- rich custard full of vanilla seeds and a hint of lime. We served it with some fresh strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar and orange rind, which perfectly balanced the sweetness of the flan with the tartness of the balsamic. Try it and I'm sure your guests will be pleased as well.
My bounty from Mapusa Market.

Chilled over night and ready to turn out. Notice the vanilla seeds.

Moment of truth...

...and voila! 

Ready to serve.

Vanilla and Lime Flan Recipe by Esperanza Platas Alvarez

Ingredients for the caramel:
½ cup sugar
3 tablespoons water

Ingredients for the base:
2 cups of condensed milk
2 cups of whole milk
3 limes
1 large vanilla pod
6 eggs
Preheat the oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make the caramel, heat together the water and sugar gently over a medium flame for about 10 minutes, ensuring the mixture does not burn.
Meanwhile, pour the condensed milk and whole milk into a pan. Add the zest of the limes. Slice the vanilla pod in half and carefully scrape out the vanilla seeds and add these to your milk mixture.
Simmer the milk slowly for fifteen minutes to let the flavours infuse.
Once the caramel is ready, pour into a cake pan and swirl it around to evenly coat the bottom of the pan. Set aside.
In a bowl, crack the eggs and beat together. Slowly pour a little of the warm milk , vanilla and lime mixture into the eggs. This will temper the eggs and prevent them from scrambling from the heat. Once the temperature of the eggs has been raised by the warm milk, pour in the rest of the milk. Pour all of the mixture into the cake pan over the caramel.
Cook the cake pan in a water bath by placing the pan inside a larger pan which is filled half way with water. Place in the oven and cook for 45 minutes to an hour.
Once ready, allow to cool and place inside a fridge overnight. The flan is then ready to be flipped over gently and served.

Recipe from the Pilot Guides website.
Ruby hearts with a tart kick.

Macerated Strawberries
1 1/2 cup fresh strawberries, cut into quarters
Grated rind of one orange
1tsp balsamic vinegar
1 1/2tsp agave syrup (or sugar/honey)

Mix all the ingredients together and chill for atleast an hour before serving. Feel free to add more agave, sugar or honey to adjust for sweetness. The berries also go well with vanilla-flavoured yoghurt, custard or vanilla ice cream. Sean loves it because it is a guilt-free dessert and has loads of antioxidants thanks to the fresh berries.
Agave Syrup on FoodistaAgave Syrup

Here's what we had before dessert:

Wedding rice, mutton curry, salad and boneless chicken.

Satisfied customer - and this was before dessert.


  1. Lurves it! It inspires even a non-foodie like me to don my apron.

  2. looks terrific, i am planning to incite my parents into growing vanilla this time. so selfish ;)

  3. Rajani - I want my stash. Nothing like growing your own food!