If you have never had a cherimoya, you are totally missing out. In fact, Mark Twain called it “the most delicious fruit known to man” in an article he wrote for the Sacramento Daily Union in 1866. The outside looks like some sort of dragon egg, but the taste and texture are out-of-this-world. It is also known as the “custard apple” because its white flesh is so creamy and sweet you can eat it with a spoon and pretend grandma cooked you up somethin’ real nice. If I had to compare it to another flavor, I’d say it’s sort of like a papaya mixed with a pear.
Almost six years ago, Mike and I were in a museum in Trujillo, Peru looking at artifacts of the Moche people who lived in that area 100-800 A.D. These talented ceramicists loved to depict all aspects of daily life in their creations– and I mean all aspects (I’ll just say that they really used the orifices and handles of vases creatively…). These X-rated ceramics were displayed amongst other G-rated vessels of fruits and animals, but you can probably guess which ones people spent more time looking at…
I was so distracted by the graphic pottery that I didn’t even notice that the fruit they often depicted in the family-friendly ceramics is a cherimoya! See the photo above? Anyways, once native to the Andes, cherimoya are now grown all over the world, including in California. Lucky us.
I headed over to the tropical fruit section of Berkeley Bowl and asked “my guy” to help me pick
out a good one. As per usual, he cut one open on the spot so I could sample a wedge and drip cherimoya juice all over the produce aisle (this is why I love Berkeley Bowl). Although I didn’t know what I was going to make with cherimoya only two seconds earlier, I immediately had my answer: the sweet, velvety flesh reminded me of one of my favorite desserts, panna cotta.
Panna cotta, meaning “cooked cream” in Italian, is usually made with some combination of cream, sugar, and gelatin, sometimes with embellishments like sour cream or mascarpone. I fiddled around with proportions and textures and came up with the recipe below. I used agar agar instead of gelatin to make this vegetarian-friendly, but if you want to make it vegan you can just substitute more coconut milk for the half and half (I did not because I wanted to taste the cherimoya and not the coconut). It is a beautifully simple dessert which really allows one to taste the delicate flavor of the fruit while enjoying the velvety, custard-like texture.
I just split the big one in the photo below with my husband for dessert. It’s hard to believe something this delicious could be good for you, but in this case it is. Cherimoya is packed with nutrition, providing about a third to a half of the recommended daily intake for vitamin C, vitamin B-6, and dietary fiber, plus a whole bunch of other vitamins and minerals. So make sure you buy two: one for preparing this recipe, and one for eating straight up with a spoon.
Cherimoya Panna Cotta
- 1/3 teaspoons powdered agar agar (vegan substitute for gelatin)
- 1 1/2 cups half and half
- 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 1 ripe cherimoya
- 1 star anise
- 1/4 cup sugar
In a small saucepan, combine the half and half, coconut milk, star anise, and sugar and place over medium heat. Whisk in the agar agar and whisk for 2-3 minutes until all ingredients are fully dissolved and the liquid begins to simmer. Turn off heat and let sit for ten minutes.
Cut the cherimoya in half and scoop out the flesh into a bowl. Squish the flesh between your hands to remove and discard all the black seeds. Once all the seeds have been removed, puree the cherimoya flesh in a blender or food processor. You should have about 1 cup of puree. Add the cherimoya puree to the saucepan and discard the anise. Stir to combine and pour into 6 small ramekins. Refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours until set and chilled through.
To serve, run a spatula around the edges of the ramekins to loosen the sides, and invert onto a dessert plate. Or, you can eat it directly out of the ramekin.