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Colombian Natilla

Few things take me back to my Colombian childhood like Christmas does. It was the only holiday in our house that remained largely untouched by the America that lived just outside our door. Everything, from the food to the music to the traditional novenas, teemed with all things Colombian. It was a time when as a child, I could see a Colombia I didn’t know come alive in my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

The celebration starts in early December with preparations to be made for the festivities. They take off on December 16, the first of nine days of a novena. We would gather, as a family, around the nativity set with instruments in hand ready to participate in the daily prayer. They ended with lovely Christmas carols we call villancicos. I was never very religious, yet this ritual always seemed to stir something deep within me. Ritual and tradition can do that.

Now that my family and I live in the UAE, far from our families, far from our cultural traditions, I feel a great responsibility to share what I can with our daughter. We have been singing (in English and Spanish), we have been doing novenas (sort of…it’s really hard to keep up with just 2 or 3 people), and we have been cooking. There’s no pernil or lechón or buñuelos or brevas con queso (figs with cheese), but there is natilla!

I have to admit that it is sometimes hard for me to meddle with tradition. As a cook, with health and taste as my guides, I know some traditions are best left alone, while others can be amended to work for everyone. This one was easy. For my new friends here in Al Ain, some of whom have dairy allergies, reaching for the coconut milk was a no-brainer. Not just for its health properties, but also for its consistency which would work great for this Christmas Custard. Coconut is also a traditional food in Colombia, thanks to its Caribbean influence on the northern coast.

Like coconut oil, coconut milk is an incredibly and deliciously healthy food. It is full of antioxidants, which curb those lingering free radicals we all have floating around to some degree. It’s a source of lauric acid (like mama’s milk) which has anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. It’s a medium-chain fatty acid that does a pretty good job of sweeping the body clean of viruses and other unwanted ills. Coconut milk has an abundance of vitamins such as C and E (also good for immunity) and the B vitamins which give our cells energy.

Another substitution was arrowroot starch instead of corn starch. Corn is another allergen, so arrowroot is always a good choice. It’s a good source of protein, folate and contains trace minerals such as copper, iron, zinc, magnesium and is a very good source of potassium. It is also native to South America, so we’re still good in keeping this dish as close to home as possible.

I just had to sneak this post in. It’s our last post of the year as we will be celebrating and preparing for our New Year’s traditions. Erica does a good job of summising them here. Yes, we do those and a few more!

Thanks so much for a great year of cooking and sharing and for all your support. It’s been a great year with lots of changes and we look forward to another great year together! Stay tuned for new recipes, new classes and loads of inspiration.

Feliz Navidad, Friends. And, Happy New Year!

You’ll need:

4C coconut milk*

1C arrowroot starch

1/2 C coconut sugar (or panela, if you can get some)

2 cinnamon sticks

4 whole cloves

1/8 t freshly ground nutmeg

2 C freshly grated coconut or unsweetened shredded coconut (dessicated)

1/2 C unsweetened shredded coconut (for garnish)

1 T ground cinnamon (for garnish)

ramekins greased with coconut oil (about 1T of oil should cover it)

To make:

1. In 1 C of coconut milk, dissolve arrowroot starch.

2. Bring remaining 3 C coconut milk to a light boil in a saucepan with coconut sugar and spices. Reduce heat to low and add the cup of coconut milk with starch.

3. Stir continuously as mixture cooks over low heat. It will start to get thick and possibly clumpy, but keep stirring to smooth it out. This should take about 15 minutes.

4. Just before removing from heat, add shredded coconut and stir to combine. Turn off heat.

5. Pour mixture into any size ramekins or souffle dishes.

6. Refrigerate for 4 hours to set the custard. Overnight works well, too.

7. In a separate bowl, mix the cinnamon with the 1/2 C of unsweetened shredded coconut. When ready to serve, sprinkle some of this mixture on top of natilla.

8. Enjoy with a cup of Herbal Vanilla Chai, tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

*I try to stay away from canned anything, and that includes coconut milk. You can make coconut milk with either fresh shredded coconut and water or even unsweetened shredded (dessicated) coconut. Use a 1:1 coconut to water ratio in the blender and then use a nutmilk bag or a cheesecloth to strain out the milk. You’ll be happy for the extra work it took!

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