The Historic Side of Haiti in Houses and Dessert

 

Warm and bloomy. That’s been the theme of our September days around here. The nighttimes though, they are a different story. Cool, breezy, decidedly leaning towards Fall, change is definitely amiss once the sun goes down and the stars come out. Literally caught between two seasons, where it is hot during the day but chilly at night, eating during this time of year, when the temperatures are flip-flopping back and forth can tend to be a bit tricky for everybody no matter what part of the country you live in.

Since the start of this global culinary adventure back in January, not all of the foods on the Recipe Tour have matched up ideally with the time of year in which they were prepared. But I am excited to say that this stop in Haiti for Week 20 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour, has lined up perfectly with the current season. This week, we are making a dessert that is quick, and easy, and a bit out of the ordinary. It involves a handful of simple ingredients, the oven, some bravery and a taste for two seasons.  It has a lighter than air consistency like the best of summer eating yet also happens to be blanketed in layers of cozy Fall flavors.  And there is a special way to present it. That brings its own sense of magic too. In the form of a little flourish of fire at the end of the production, it both has the ability to dazzle your senses and delight your spirit. Like that familiar friend named nostalgia- just returned from last year, this sweet treat immediately welcomes the idea of logs and kindling and wood smoke and sweaters. It’s a dessert for the in-between times when your world isn’t quite what it used to be but also isn’t quite yet what it’s going to be. Yes indeed, this is the best time of year for this type of dessert.

On the menu today we are making Bananas Au Rhum, a Caribbean flambe that has influences in French, American and Haitian culture. But before we dive into the recipe and the making of it, I just wanted to acknowledge that this post has been on hold for most of the month due to the West Coast wildfires.  It didn’t seem like an appropriate time to feature a recipe that involved a voluntary fire in one kitchen while part of the country was battling involuntary fires in many numbers of neighborhoods. Having said that, for any readers who are sensitive to open flames at the moment, you may want to skip this post and join us again next week when we travel to a new (non-fire related) international destination that specializes in hearty foods for hungry appetites.

If you are sticking with us today, then hello, hello! Welcome to Haiti! Sharing the island of Hispaniola with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, Haiti is a world all onto itself.

To learn about the history of this island nation means to learn about a country that has been battling ill-intentioned governments, poverty, corruption, slavery, and natural disasters pretty much since it was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in the 15th century.

As one of the poorest nations in the world, much of the news that gets relayed and recorded about this country, both in the past and the present, has mostly focused on Haiti’s challenges.  This, of course, is ideal when change needs to be made or special aid is required for situations like hurricane cleanup and economic assistance, but those types of immediate crises can tend to easily overshadow the elements that make Haiti unique, vibrant, and culturally important.  In today’s post, we are setting tragedies aside and drawing inspiration from the sweet side of Haiti’s history in the form of food, drink, architecture, and design aesthetics, all of which were shaped by French, Spanish, African, and indigenous influences. Like this vintage travel poster declares, there is plenty of joie de vivre to be found in Haiti. Today, we are here to highlight it!

Nicknamed the Pearl of the Antilles, Haiti’s most celebrated attribute is its natural beauty. There the sea shines clear and turquoise, beaches are powdery white like sugar, and palm trees, tall and regal, ruffle out the landscape.

In the historic districts, Haiti is home to the Gingerbread house, a colorful style of architecture that has defined the island and defied almost every single weather event since inception. First introduced by three architects over a century ago, this specific style of colorful house with its exquisitely detailed trim work, tall windows, and airy interiors may look delicate among the more solid buildings of the Haitian landscape, but their strength and ability to withstand storm after storm has landed them on the preservation and conversation list of the World Monuments Fund where they are being renovated, rehabilitated, and appreciated for their craftsmanship and their historical significance.

Like the old cars and weathered residences of Havana, the gingerbread houses of Haiti create a cinematic aesthetic. With about 300,000 of them scattered throughout the island, they offer a peek inside the past to a time when Haiti’s wealthy built breezy beauties to defy island heat and humidity. Inspired by French architecture and New Orleans ornamentation, these houses were made primarily of wood, swathed in shutters, painted bright colors, and dotted with symbolism to reflect the mysteries and curiosities of a unique heritage not often discussed.

Outside, gingerbread houses feature gabled roofs, interesting angles, and strategically placed porches that offer picturesque views of the garden, the city or the sea. Inside, they are a menagerie of doorways and tile floors, louvres and alcoves,  with sky-high ceilings and arched doorframes all creatively arranged to encourage the heat to rise and the humidity to stay outside. Detailed interior trims and mouldings include ornamental designs of local patterns, emblems and shapes including voodoo symbols, all of which reflect the artistic creativity and spirituality of Haitian culture.

To capture this unique island aesthetic of the gingerbreads, which is at once, elegant, quirky, artistic and visually engaging, several unifying hallmarks help create a replicable effect…

  • Handmade Baskets: It is the ladies who do all do the selling at the market in Haiti. They tend to transport most of their offerings balanced on their head in large baskets, which have come to represent bounty and entrepreneurial spirit.
  • French Details: The French government ruled Haiti for 300 years, ending in 1803. Even though two hundred years have passed since then, French culture is still very much present around the country, particularly when it comes to design, language, food and antique style housewares.
  • Wood Shutters: A house in Haiti without air conditioning depends on wooden shutters to help cool interior spaces. Tall and elegant, these shutters take the place of drapes and bring a little bit of the outdoors in.
  • Folk Art: One of the most vibrant art forms on the island besides music, is folk art paintings which capture the passion, spirit and history of Haiti in vibrant colors. Some newly discovered favorite artists include Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948)  Andrew LaMar HopkinsJean Yvone Casenueve, and this one in the shop.
  • Unique Flooring: Many floors in the houses of Haiti’s historic districts are painted with patterns or contain geometric tiles that help keep the interior spaces cool and also looking beautiful.
  • Gingerbread Details: Gingerbread trim, victorian millwork and scroll saw designs are staples both indoors and out and can be seen all over Haiti, but most predominately in the historic districts. Unique architectural elements reflect the island vibe.
  • Tropical Plants: Haiti is home to over 25,00 different species of native flora and fauna. Nothing adds an instant dose of the exotic quite like growing a tropical plant indoors or out.
  • Voodoo Symbolism – With ties to the country’s African roots and the Roman Catholic religion, the practice of voodoo in Haiti offers a connection to the spirit world through many different manifestations including connections with patron saints and ancestral spirits . This symbol represents Papa Legba who acts as the mediator between the spirit world and the living world.
  • Vibrant Colors – The colors of the national flag of Haiti are blue, red and white but the country as a whole is awash in vibrant hues.  Inspiration can be found all over the country from the beautiful beaches to brightly painted buildings, textiles, handicrafts, art and even the famous tap tap buses. The gingerbread houses seem to reflect them all!
A gingerbread house in Port-au-Prince. Photo courtesy of Experience Haiti.

A few decades before the gingerbread bread houses started popping up around the island, a  man named Dupre came from France to Port-au-Prince in the 1860s. He started a rum distillery and gave it his family’s name – Barbancourt. One hundred and fifty years later, Barbancourt is recognized as one of the best rum brands in the world and is still operating as a family run business, now in its 5th generation.

The grounds of Barbencourt Distillery located in Port-Au Prince

By utilizing pure sugar cane juice instead of the more common molasses,  Barbancourt’s method of distilling rum has won awards around the world and is by far the best known and best-loved rum in Haiti. Ideally, we would have been using Barbancourt in our recipe today too, but after a lengthy discussion with a spirits expert at my local liquor store, it was decided that a 151 blend of rum would be the most appropriate in order to ensure that the bananas would catch fire and truly become a flambe. Several companies make a version of 151, which is essentially just rum with a really high alcohol content (75% by volume) but sadly, Barbancourt does not. Their highest alcohol content is 43%. So  I went with Goslings for this recipe. Goslings, like Barbancourt, has been around since the 1800s, and since it is made in Bermuda, it still lends an island vibe to this week’s cooking endeavor.

I should also note that the recipe never specified how high of an alcohol content was needed, but 151 is the standard go-to in the flambe world, so it’s a safe bet to rely upon, if this is your first time lighting foods on fire, like it was mine.

Grandpa Herbert’s 1960s Anchor Hocking casserole dish – protector of all fire-related cooking endeavors.

I’ll admit I was a little nervous about this step myself.  Before I bit the bullet and lit the match, I made sure to have our under-the-sink fire extinguisher out on the counter along with a dry towel for tamping, just in case the flames got a little too overzealous. I also used a special baking dish that has magical protective powers. My grandpa Herbert’s 1960s Anchor Hocking Fire King casserole dish. If you recall from previous posts, Herbert was a fireman in Chicago for forty years and I like to think that his baking dish holds special powers and would protect anyone who cooks with it from any unwanted fiery encounters.

Thanks to Grandpa, the dish, and the careful precautions, I’m happy to say that the kitchen is still intact, no one suffered singed eyebrows or burnt hair and the counter didn’t catch on fire. The flames, about 5 inches in height, lasted for about a minute before dying out. It was fun to watch them dance around the dish in that same mesmerizing way as lighting sparklers on the Fourth of July, or staring at a bonfire on the beach.  All in all, this was a recipe that was exciting to make and delicious to taste.

If you are new to the world of flambeed desserts, which have been around since the 1800s, than you are in for a treat. Lots of foods can be doused with alcohol and set aflame including crepes, oranges, pears, puddings, cakes, and cocktails but bananas are one of the most favorite.  In the oven, the bananas briefly swim in a sea of hot butter, sugar, and rum until the point where they all join together and start to turn brown and sticky. Once the caramelization begins to happen, then the dish gets doused in rum, the match gets lit and the rum catches fire creating a rich, warm flavor and an entertaining spectacle. Forget dinner and a show. With this recipe, we are going straight to dessert. And a show.

Bananas au Rhum

serves 4

4 firm ripe bananas

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

lemon juice

1/2 cup rum

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Peel the bananas and cut them in half lengthwise.

Melt the butter in an ovenproof baking dish and add the banana halves.

Sprinkle with sugar…

and bake for about 10 minutes or until the bananas are thoroughly hot and the sugar is melted. (Note: At this stage, they will look a little bit like half-cooked sausages.) Sprinkle with lemon juice and baste briefly. Return to the oven for two minutes.

Warm the rum ( I put mine in a cup in the microwave for 15 seconds) and pour it over the bananas. Ignite the rum…

and when the flame dies, serve immediately.

Besides the fire component, what makes this dessert especially interesting is that the bananas retain their shape. It sort of turns into a little game with your brain, because you’d think upon initial appearance – post oven – that the first bite would be relatively firm like a brownie or a soft-boiled egg but in actuality, the bananas have the consistency of something more like mousse or a marshmallow or even whipped cream. The first bite is an unexpected yet delightfully delicious surprise. In actuality, these cooked bananas are not unlike the gingerbread houses of Haiti – their looks are a little deceiving when it comes to the integrity of their composition.

 

Serve this dessert outdoors with a cup of coffee and you have the makings of a magical early Autumn night that is just right for this time of year. Since Bananas au Rhum is not one of those desserts that likes to hang around, go ahead and enjoy the whole dish right to the very last bite. You won’t regret it in the least!

Cheers to deliciously dramatic bananas, to the happy side of Haiti and their beautiful historic gingerbreads, and cheers to our brand new season. I hope you fall in love with each and all:)

Join us next time for Week 21 as we head to Hungary for colorful comfort food and officially mark the halfway point in the International Vintage Recipe Tour. Until then, happy cooking!