I love foraging. I love to go out to some hidden part of the city to pick my own food. Last year we went out foraging with some friends for nasturtium flowers and seed pods. We had flower pesto for lunch and I took the capers home to pickle. Sadly, we missed the nasturtium bloom this year but we have been talking about foraging for fennel for at least three years. I’ve always wanted to experiment with fennel pollen, but there is only a small window of time in the summer when you can find it.
My brother and his girlfriend were in town for the 4th of July weekend and this was a fun activity for us to do together. Of course the dog came along too (she’s constantly foraging anyway, so why not let her help us this time). Since I’d never done this before I did some quick internet research before we headed out. I found an article by Hank Shaw in the Atlantic on foraging for fennel pollen. It seemed pretty easy and I was pretty confident in my ability as a fennel pollen forager.
Steve knew of a great spot where a bunch of fennel grows in a small canyon only a few miles from our apartment. We packed a variety of bags and a small plastic container for storage. I found that both freezer bags or plastic produce bags work really well. The technique is easy, simply cover the fennel flowers with a bag and shake. The fennel pollen will fall into the bag.
It took a lot of flowers to collect even a little bit of pollen. I think we came home with about 1/3 cup of pollen total, after 4 people working at it for about an hour. So yeah, it’s hard work. There’s a reason why the stuff is almost as expensive as saffron!
The only thing to be careful for is the aphids. There were some flowers that had a bunch of the bugs on them, I simply avoided those. Once we had the pollen, I carefully picked through it multiple times to make sure I took out any potential bugs.
Now that we had the fennel pollen, I had to decide what to make with it. I had just made rabri a few days ago and I was looking for something to do with it. Rabri is condensed milk that has a bit of caramelization to it. Indians use it to make kulfi (ice cream), puddings or to serve alongside sweets like malpuda.
I decided I would bake pots de creme with the pollen using the rabri. It was so yummy!
Fennel Pollen Pots De Creme
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 cups homemade condensed milk or rabri (I did not add any sugar, vanilla or saffron for this recipe. Unlike store bought condensed milk this homemade version has a caramel flavor. See notes for substitute)
- 1/2 cup cream
- 1/4 tsp cardamom
- 1 tsp fennel pollen
- If using homemade condensed milk, put it in the blender for a minute and puree. This will make sure all the chunks of caramelized milk are small enough to go through a sieve later.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until blended together.
- In a small saucepan, mix in the condensed milk and cream. Bring to a simmer.
- Slowly pour the hot milk and cream mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly as you pour.
- Strain the egg and milk mixture (to take out any lumps of cooked egg) into a measuring cup with a pouring lip.
- Stir in the cardamom and fennel pollen.
- Pour the mixture into 4 oz ramekins. Cover each ramekin tightly with foil.
- Place the cups into a roasting pan or another deep dish that will hold all the ramekins.
- Place the pan in the oven and pour boiling water into the pan so that the ramekins are halfway submerged in water.
- Carefully close the oven and bake for about 35 to 45 minutes.
- The custards should be set but still jiggly in the center.
- Remove from water bath and let cool for 30 minutes. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.
If you don’t have fennel pollen, just substitute it for ground fennel seeds.
I know it’s tedious to reduce milk like I did so feel free to use evaporated milk instead and just substitute half the sugar for brown sugar. The brown sugar should provide a caramelly flavor similar to reduced milk.
This recipe is adapted from the Vanilla Pots De Creme in the Joy of Cooking.