"Both in tree and in fruit, the custard apple, Annona reticulata L., is generally rated as the mediocre or "ugly duckling" species among the prominent members of this genus."
A few days ago while bringing me my weekly delivery from her Finca EcoLoco, my friend Linn pulled out a couple of ugly lumpy specimans and said, "Can you use these"? "These", were vaguely artichoke shaped, but softly spiny, brownish-green (or were they greenish-brown) lumpy, ugly pieces of some kind of organic matter. I knew immediately that they were Anona, or sweetsop (or soursop, depending), a fruit also know as the "Custard Apple". I'd participated in the eating of only one previously and hadn't stopped to consider that I might be able to use them in my kitchen.
My previous experience with the anona had consisted of yanking one off a tree up at the house on La Union, slicing it in half, handing a spoon to a friend and sharing it with her. The flesh is indeed custardy and mild, somewhat vanilla (?) ice cream colored, and a bit on the slimy side. The seeds, which cling mightily to the fruit are like watermelon seeds on steroids and much, much slipperier. The fruit, while not anything that would cause me to develop a serious craving, was certainly pleasant enough and easy to eat.
So now I had two.
I didn't spend much time pondering the anona for a day or two while I went about a busy weekend, but then on Monday, there they were, ripe and ready for something. So I did what I always do when I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to put a new fruit (or one that I don't really have a lot of) to use; I make ice cream out of it. I figured with a name like "custard apple" it would surely fall right into an ice cream niche.
What I hadn't figured on was the surprising strength of the fibers in this slippery fruit and how strongly they clung to the seeds (and vice versa). I cut my two anonas in half, scooped out the flesh with a big spoon and commenced to trying to push it through the same steel mesh strainer I use to strain the seeds from pureed blackberries. I pushed, I reamed, I shoved and I scraped the flesh against the mesh of the strainer. I worked the edge of the spoon back and forth, back and forth; forcing the slippery flesh into the small passages of the strainer. The going was far slower than I'd anticipated and the seeds, oh the seeds, just would not let go of the fat amounts of flesh that clung to them.
At the end of nearly 40 minutes of pushing and mildly cursing; walking away from time to time out of frustration and boredom, and scraping the bottom of the strainer, I had amassed nearly two cups of puree, and that was enough for a batch of ice cream. There was a bit more flesh to be passed, but damn it, the things had been free and this was taking waaaaaay longer than I had figured it would.
So I made my standard ice cream base of milk, cream and sugar and added the hard fought anona puree to it. It went into the refi on Monday and into the ice cream maker on Tuesday. And I would love to say that I loved the resultant ice cream and that its flavors were revelatory; but that is simply not the case. It remained a pleasant and mildly fruity flavor, now smoothed and sweetened by the cream and sugar. I served it in lieu of vanilla ice cream over chocolate cake and alongside an almond tart. It was well received but again, there was no hue and cry over its uniqueness or appeal. It was, for all the work, a nice fruit. Ugly as hell, though.
There comes a time in the life of every fruit when the Chef using it needs to alter it; change it, make something more of it than the natural wonder that it is. For me, this usually means finding some way to caramelize whichever fruit is close at hand. To make the caramel, I use regular unsalted butter, but have taken lately to using a lot of Tapa Dulce, the dark sugar made here in Costa Rica by boiling down the liquid squeezed from fresh sugar cane. Tapa Dulce is a natural and organic product and the flavor is much more haunting and noticeable than that of even locally produced brown sugars. It appears in our markets here in in a cone shape with a bit of a flattened top where the point would be. When it is cooked it seems to take on a kind of caramelized vegetable flavor, that to me is akin to the flavors one gets from the crunchy sugary parts of roasted pumpkin or yam.
So there I was with bananas, butter and Tapa Dulce. I set about making a Caramelized Banana Tart by dropping a half cube of butter into a saute pan and adding a half cup of shredded (a cheese grater works nicely for this) Tapa Dulce. When heated, the Tapa Dulce breaks down quickly and the resultant caramel is thick, a bit grainy, and rich. I poured that into the bottom of a round pyrex and proceeded with the cake. I creamed butter, more Tapa Dulce and ripe bananas, added eggs, organic natilla (a local sourcream like product), a bit of local vanilla and removed the bowl from the KitchenAid. Away from the machine I folded in a relatively small amount of flour to hold everything together.
I cut three nicely ripe and very sweet bananas from our property into long slices and overlapped them on top of the caramel. This was looking a lot like a Tarte Tatin or my pineapple upsidedown cake. I smoothed the batter gently over the top of the bananas and launched the whole thing into the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes. What came out of the oven was a dark tan pastry with a volcanic pools of caramel bubbling up around its edges and even from a few spots in the middle. It smelled great! I waited about half an hour, ran a knife around the edges and turned the cake over and out onto a cutting board. It looked great with the overlapping banana slices and the banana caramel mixture left in the pan was one of the best things I've ever run my finger through. The tart looked great sitting there on the cutting board, ready for slicing.
There were, however, more bananas and more Tapa Dulce. I peeled another eight bananas, whacked them into thirds and tossed them in a bowl with nearly a cup of the shredded Tapa Dulce and some softened butter. This mixture went into a pyrex and into a 350 oven for nearly 40 minutes. What came out was like banana candy; chunks of softened banana dripping and coated with thickened caramel. It was hard not to plunder them immediately.
I cooled the roasted caramelized banana pieces for a hour or so while I went about making another ice cream base. The puree went into the base and into the refi it went for a night. The next day the chilled mix went into the frozen drum of the ice cream maker and around and around it went. I had a good feeling about this one, and my intuition was rewarded. This was an awesome (not a word I use lightly) ice cream. The intensity of the roasted bananas combined with the caramel permeated the ice cream and the flavor was rich and seductive.
So now the choices were: serve the two banana products together for a one dimensional caramelized banana rush; serve them with flavors that would compliment them and offset them, or serve them alone, as is/was. I did the first two, my inability to not combine them with anything easily winning out. They did go out together; a study in the intensity of the cooked banana; I served the ice cream over my flourless chocolate cake and the crowd went wild; and I served the banana cake with a simple vanilla ice cream to great effect, as well.
These recipes are both keepers and will become yet another part of the permanent rotation of desserts. I never set out to be a pastry chef, and it probably shows, but with ingredients like these, it seems simple to succeed, if I keep it simple.