The Mayans knew the value of the Canistel back in 800 BC. They would gather the maturing fruit from the dense evergreen trees that shaded their thatch homes and place them in the cooled ashes of the fire. Here they would ripen to a golden yellow and would be used as a nourishing staple for everyday life. The Canistel is sometimes erroneously recorded as native to northern South America where related, somewhat similar species are indigenous. Apparently, it occurs wild only in southern Mexico (including Yucatan), Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador. It is cultivated in these countries and in Costa Rica (where it has never been found wild), Nicaragua and Panama, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba (where it is most popular and commercialized in Pinar del Rio), the Bahamas, southern Florida and the Florida Keys. Some writers have reported the canistel as naturalized on the Florida Keys, in the Bahamas and Cuba, but specimens that appear to be growing in the wild are probably on the sites of former homesteads.
Erect tree growing to a height of 15-20 meters. Leaves are alternative, smooth, dark green, elliptic to narrow-obovate with entire margins. Flowers are greenish white in axillary clusters. Pedicels are long. Fruit is extremely variable in size and form, oval, subglobose, pear-shaped or spindle-shaped, with or without a pointed apex or curved beak, yellow-orange when ripe with an edible sweet and meat pulp. Fruit is edible; can be eaten with salt, pepper and lime or lemon juice or mayonnaise, either fresh or after light baking. The pureed flesh may be used in custards or added to ice cream mix just before freezing. A rich milkshake, or “egg-fruit-nog”, is made by combining ripe canistel pulp, milk, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg or other seasoning in a blender. Canistels are rich in niacin and carotene (provitamin A) and have a fair level of ascorbic acid. Chemical analyses show that the canistel excels the glamorized carambola (Averrhoa carambola L.) in every respect except in moisture and fiber content, and riboflavin. Extracted from the tree in Central America has been used to adulterate chicle. The fruit of canistel do not mature at the same time. They are yellow to orange when they are mature and it is the time to be picked.
The fruit can be stored at room temperature for 3 to 10 days for ripening. As they soften, the skin texture changes from glossy to dull. The ripe fruit or the pulp can be preserved and stored by freezing it for up to 6 months. Blooming extends from January to June in Mexico. In Cuba, flowers are borne mostly in April and May though some trees flower all year. The canistel has the advantage of coming into season in late fall and winter, when few other tropical fruits are available. The fruits generally mature from September to January or February in the Bahamas, from November or December to February or March in Florida. In Cuba, the main fruiting season is from October to February but some trees produce more or less continuously throughout the year. The mature but still firm fruits should be clipped to avoid tearing the skin. When left to ripen on the tree, the fruits split at the stem end and fall. A severe drop in temperature will cause firm-mature fruits to split and drop to the ground. The fact that the canistel is not crisp and juicy like so many other fruits seems to dismay many who sample it casually. Some take to it immediately. During World War II when RAF pilots and crewmen were under training in the Bahamas, they showed great fondness for the canistel and bought all they could, find in the Nassau market.
Flesh of 3 canistels (~1 cup)
4 eggs + 1 egg yolk
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated)
3/4 cup sugar
Preheat your oven to 350F. Defrost the canistel flesh if it’s been frozen. Add the four eggs and one yolk to the canistel in a large bowl and mix. Add the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg and mix until well-incorporated. Used an immersion blender to break up the lumpy bits of canistel. The condensed milk is already plenty sweet, plus we’re making a caramel, so it won’t need any more sugar. Note that the color is almost entirely from the canistels, not the eggs. Then, pour it through a strainer.
Next, the caramel. Put the 3/4 cup sugar into a saucepan over medium heat. Just leave it be until the sugar starts to melt, then stir occasionally with a fork to incorporate the rest of the un melted sugar. After about ten minutes, you should have liquid (molten! be careful) golden-brown caramel.
Set up eight 4-oz. ramekins in a baking dish large enough to hold them, with sides at least as tall as the ramekins. Working quickly, spoon a couple spoonfuls of the caramel into each of the ramekins. It will solidify quickly. Then pour the flan mixture into each of the ramekins. When they’re all filled, place the baking dish in the oven and pour about 4 cups hot water into the baking dish (enough to come about halfway up the sides of the ramekins). Bake for about 40-45 minutes, until fully set (you can stick a skewer into one to get a sense of whether they’re cooked through). Remove and let cool on a rack.
To serve, run a knife around the edge next to the ramekin, to loosen the flan. Then put a plate over the top of the ramekin, and flip the plate and ramekin over. The flan should release onto the plate, topped with the caramel.