In a hole-in-the-wall bookstore in Mérida, Yucatan, I once found a curious little cookbook written long ago by a town historian. It was a gold mine of traditional recipes from another era. My favorite was a simple rice pudding with achiote seeds (also called "annatto") and chocolate. "This is history in a pudding," I said to myself as I read the recipe. Someone in colonial times had the brilliant idea of uniting an ancient Maya chocolate drink dyed with the classic coloring of the New World tropics and a homespun Mediterranean sweet.
It has been a part of my repertoire for many years, but I'm not sure the town historian would recognize what I have done with his quiet, simple model. The original had no spices, except for cinnamon, while my version is rich with spices to suit my mood. But no matter what I do with this rich, sultry, red-tawny dish, I always pledge my Latin American allegiance with a can of our indispensable condensed milk. And I always follow my own idea of what a good rice pudding should taste and feel like - perfumed and sensuous, with the grains of rice almost melting into the matrix of the scented milk. For this, I start by cooking the rice in achiote-infused water so that it will soften nicely and take up the orange color of the seeds before I add the milk. My final touch is another bit of New World culinary history: the irresistible note of pure vanilla bean. This is a generous recipe, ideal for entertaining a crowd.
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Adapted from The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes by Maricel E. Presilla (Ten Speed Press, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Maricel E. Presilla.