This month I interviewed Nicole Reyna, recipe developer behind Flan and Apple Pie and founder of Voladores Vanilla, an online shop, “Preserving a Mexican Tradition: Vanilla from Veracruz.” Nicole and I have been Insta-amigas for years, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that we made it official (met IRL) and actually met in Mexico City and let me tell you, she’s as sweet in person as all of the delicious treats she shares on her blog. I truly hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did conducting it!
XO – Lola
Nicole Reyna (previously Makrinos) is of Greek descent and grew up eating American classics and homemade mac and cheese. She’s a Pittsburgh native and full-time Spanish teacher. Nicole traveled to Mexico for the first time in 2007 for a study abroad program in Puebla and later lived in Mexico City where she taught English at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional on a Fulbright Scholarship. Nicole fell in love with Mexican food, culture, art, and her Veracruz-born husband, Roberto. She created Flan and Apple Pie to recreate the dishes she dreamed about from her travels. Years later, Nicole was on the hunt for quality Mexican vanilla beans, which proved to be a challenge, but led her and Roberto to launch Voladores Vanilla where they work directly with farmers in Veracruz, Mexico to bring us some of the world’s finest vanilla beans.
INTERVIEW WITH NICOLE REYNA, FOUNDER OF VOLADORES VANILLA AND FLAN AND APPLE PIE
Please walk us through a typical day in your shoes.
During the week, I work as a high school Spanish teacher. My day starts early (7:15), but I am usually home early enough to make a nice homecooked meal. I was so lucky to grow up in a family where food and family time were valued, and I still believe in that today.
On the weekends, I spend part of my time working on lesson plans and coming up with creative ways to teach Spanish. But, when I get some spare moments, I truly love to make Mexican food. This weekend, I plan on making nixtamal for fresh corn masa so that we can enjoy a specialty breakfast item from Veracruz – estrujadas. I also love to garden, so that can take up a lot of my time in the afternoons and summer.
What was the initial inspiration for you to start your blog and vanilla business?
I started my blog Flan & Apple Pie in 2013 after living in Mexico during 2009-2010. I greatly missed traditional Mexican food, and there were no good Mexican restaurants in my area. I decided to try my hand at recreating some of the amazing flavors that I remembered, and the blog was a way for me to keep track of my “experiments.”
How beautiful is Nicole’s flan? After seeing this, I always add fresh flowers to my flan!
I didn’t start Voladores Vanilla until almost 3 years later in November of 2015. I honestly never expected the vanilla business to turn into what it is today. It started with a kilo a vanilla that my husband, Roberto, brought back from his home state of Veracruz. The initial reason why Roberto brought the vanilla beans all the way from Mexico was because I couldn’t find a good source of Mexican vanilla online. When I saw how beautiful, fresh, and fragrant the beans were, I realized that I had to share them with others, so I started selling the beans on Etsy.
Voladores Vanilla’s produceres in Veracruz, Mexico.
What’s one of your all-time favorite recipes from Flan and Apple Pie?
One of my absolute favorite recipes is the pozole. It is our go-to recipe in the wintertime. My mother-in-law was kind enough to share her recipe with me. I always beam with pride when Roberto eats other pozole and says, “Yours is still the best.”
But, the most pinned recipe is for my conchas, and it is the recipe that took me the longest to get right. I still feel like it’s a work in progress, but the recipe on the blog is something I think that really comes close to the conchas you find at the panaderías in Mexico.
What makes Mexican Vanilla unique?
Mexican vanilla is unique because Mexico is where vanilla originated. Many of the farmers in Mexico still plant, harvest, and cure vanilla using the same time-honored traditions that have been used for hundreds of years. This is not necessarily true for other vanilla-producing countries like Madagascar. In addition, vanilla can grow wild in Mexico because they have the native pollinator, the melipona bee. All vanilla in other regions of the world must be pollinated by hand.
Perfectly plump vanilla beans from Voladores Vanilla. This is the only vanilla I use in my cocina.
Describe a challenge you’re currently facing in managing your blog and business.
During the day, I am a full-time high school Spanish teacher. So, between classes, lesson plans, and papers to grade, I have a hard time finding the space to include time for my blog and business. This year in particular has been extra difficult because I switched from teaching elementary Spanish to high school Spanish, and that means I have to come up with new ideas and new lessons. But, thankfully, I have Roberto to help me with the vanilla business. He takes care of all of the logistics with the Mexican farmers and our supply of vanilla.
Please share three goals or projects you would like to accomplish in 2019.
When Roberto and I sat down to write our New Year’s goals, we decided to write personal goals as well as hopes and aspirations we have for Voladores. One of our personal goals was to travel to a new place. So, this summer we headed to Guatemala and various parts of the Yucatán peninsula for two weeks. Two goals that we have for Voladores are to get our own website up and running and to work on our Instagram account. So far, we have been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make a website a reality sometime soon.
Nicole and her husband Roberto hiking Tikal in Guatemala.
How do you practice self-care?
This may sound silly, but I like to eat good-quality foods. I try to buy organic when possible and last year we participated in a CSA and received so many fun vegetables from a local organic farm. I like to know where my food comes from, and how it is prepared. I try to make my own versions of food when possible like almond milk or hummus. And besides this, I treat myself to a nice warm bath every now and then in the winter time.
What’s something you’re currently obsessed with?
I’m currently obsessed with the podcast Birthful. The host, Adriana Lozada is originally from Venezuela and she is so sweet and informative. Plus, she speaks English so beautifully. I’m always super impressed. I’m also loving coconut milk. About a year ago, I found out that I have a dairy sensitivity (boo hoo…because I love all-things-dairy) and I find that coconut milk is such a good substitute in many recipes and still gives you that creaminess. My favorite brand is Aroy-D because it doesn’t have any additives. It’s just coconut milk!
Nicole is also an avid gardener. Look at all of her summer chamomile!
What’s one of your go-to meals when you’re just too exhausted to cook?
One of my go-to meals is what I like to call “huevos a la mexicana”—Mexican-style eggs. I like to cook scrambled eggs and serve them with frijoles refritos (refried beans), avocado, salsa, and some corn tortillas warmed on the stove. It is such a comfort meal for me. PS…we love using Lola’s Cocina Salsa Negra on our huevos a la mexicana.
What are three items you always pack when traveling to Mexico (aside from a passport, of course)?
I always pack my jeans because no one wears shorts in Mexico. Shorts are a dead giveaway that you are a tourist. Plus, long pants help me avoid mosquito bites.
I must have my camera with me. While a phone is really nice for snapping pics in the market, I still like to take my Canon with me to capture the beauty of my trip.
I take a good pair of walking shoes. The sidewalks in Mexico aren’t that great due to all of the earthquakes, and we like to walk everywhere. Your feet will start to hurt and get dirty without some nice walking shoes.
What types of treasures do you like to bring home from Mexico?
Such a hard question! Everything! I always bring home a book (or several). Even though it would seem that we have access to everything with Amazon, there are so many books published in Mexico that never even make it here. I could (and do) spend hours in the bookstores when I go. I also try to always bring home a textile of some sort. I love huipiles (embroidered blouses) and pretty much anything stitched by hand. Mexican artists have amazing talent. Finally, I always look for an alebrije to represent the “spirit” of my trip or travels that year, and Roberto always bring back an alebrije for me when he visits too. I have quite a collection.
What’s one dish that everyone must try that’s unique to Veracruz?
Without a doubt, zacahuil! Zacahuil is a giant tamal that is made with masa martajada (coarse-ground corn masa), lard, chiles, and meat (usually pork). It is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked overnight. You can usually find it on Sundays. They serve it with a jalapeño-carrot-onion escabeche. My mother-in-law is so nice and usually tries to make it for me when I visit, but you can also find it at markets or roadside stands.
If you are looking for a sweet treat, you cannot pass up buying cocadas at the beach. They are candies made from shredded coconut and often come in flavors like pineapple, cinnamon, lime, and milk with raisins. My favorite by far is natural which is just toasted coconut. I can eat a whole bag of cocadas in one sitting if I don’t stop myself.
What are some of your favorite accounts to follow on Instagram and why?
@holasus – Susy always inspires me with her beautiful photos. She does such an amazing job representing the soul of Mexican food.
@mexicanfoodmemories – Karla is such a sweet person, and I love seeing her share Mexican food and culture with England.
@rociocarvajalc – Rocío is an incredibly talented individual, and she has shared so many wonderful resources with me regarding Mexican food.
@rafamier – Rafael has such an incredible knowledge of heirloom Mexican corn and plants native to Mexico. His photos of the country’s crop diversity are gems.
@mextizopnw – I absolutely love how Gino uses traditional and lesser know Mexican ingredients to create new dishes.
@lolascocina – And, of course…Lola is always a favorite! I love her sense of humor and her sincere love of all things Mexican – textiles, food, art, and culture. Plus, Lola is always the one to offer encouragement and support.
Check out more of Nicole’s delicious recipes at Flan and Apple Pie (@flanandapplepie) and purchase her Mexican vanilla beans online at Voladores Vanilla (@voladoresvanilla). In the meantime, check out Nicole’s drool-enticing photos below.
Photos provided by Nicole Reyna.
Lola Wiarco Dweck
Lola is a Mexican-American recipe developer, writer, and cooking instructor who loves sharing her culture with the world. Growing up in California and spending summers in Mexico, Lola celebrates her family’s Mexican recipes and vibrant culture through Lola’s Cocina.