The Big Move is behind me. With the High Holidays over and Sukkot just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about meals and menus without much interruption. Plenty of time to think about all that because for the past several days I’ve been lying in bed, blowing my nose.
Oh, woe. If I’d only drunk my daily cup of kefir, I could have avoided this cold and gone to a post- Yom Kippur breakfast, met some interesting new people…and look, I had even made some flan to take.
Many food historians claim that this elegant dish goes back to the ancient Romans and an egg-and-honey custard. Although the ancient Romans had a sophisticated cuisine, I suspect that flan in some form, under other names, existed long before them.
We don’t know who first baked bread, brewed beer, or pickled olives; nor do we know if the ancient Phoenicians invented custard and brought it to Spain, where the Romans first sampled it. I lean towards the last theory – it evokes an even more ancient time, when some barefoot farm wife found herself with an excess of creamy milk, not enough to make cheese but a few dipperfulls. And say her hens had just laid an unusual number of eggs. It wouldn’t have taken much imagination to mix the two in a clay pot, bake the mixture in the embers of a fire, and douse the custard with honey. That would have been a treat for a seafaring husband, something to make him miss home.
Well, that’s just romance and speculation. For a good read on the history of puddings, custards, and creams, with many historical recipes, go here.
But flan, flan takes me back to my childhood in Venezuela. I remember spooning up the silky custard with its veil of caramel syrup, allowing that tiny burnt taste to just approach my senses before it yielded to sweetness and the blander taste of cream and eggs. I still love flan. When thinking of a light dessert to please a crowd who’d been fasting 25 hours, that was what came to mind.
Out on the Net, almost every recipe calls for cans of condensed and evaporated milk. You can get those here, but they’re expensive and not kosher enough for everyone as they’re chalav nochri (milk produced by Gentiles). This recipe, needing only whipping cream and milk, is adapted from one I found on Epicurious.com
Note: flan does shrink in cooking, so ramekins make a prettier presentation than a ring or a pie plate. I doubled the recipe and used a silicon bundt pan plus a pie pan to steady it.
Traditional Spanish Flan
1 and 3/4 cup whipping cream
1 cup milk
pinch of salt
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 large yolks
7 Tablespoons sugar
hot water for steaming the flan
1. Combine the cream, milk, and salt.
2. Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean into the cream mixture. Add the bean. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a simmer. Turn the flame off, cover the pan, and allow it to infuse for 1/2 hour.
3. Now preheat the oven to 350°F – 180° C.
4. Get your ramekins or mold ready: place them (or it) on a baking pan.
5. Put the cup of sugar into a medium pan. Allow it to dissolve and caramelize over a medium flame. Keep a sharp eye on it – it takes only a few minutes for the sugar to brown. Once it goes black, it’s bitter and inedible. Break up any chunks with a spoon. As soon as the sugar smells only a little burnt and has a deep orange color, pour the syrup into the mold. Be very careful – burnt sugar causes painful burns on the skin. Best is to wear gloves. Now tilt the mold so the syrup coats as much of its inside as possible. Let it cool till the 1/2 hour of cream infusing with vanilla is up.
6. You’ll need to fill up the baking pan with water to half-way up the mold, so heat the water up in a kettle now.
7. Whisk the eggs, yolks, and 7 Tablespoons of sugar together in a medium bowl.
8. Whisk the infused cream into the yolks, gently. Try not to make foam, which will create air holes in the texture of the finished flan (can’t avoid them entirely, but small ones don’t matter).
9. Pour the custard into the mold, through a sieve. Sieving removes the pieces of vanilla bean and the skin which formed on the surface of the cream .
10. Pour enough hot water into the baking pan to come half-way up the mold.
11. Bake till the center is gently set: 40-50 minutes.
When it’s done, remove the whole thing from the oven, baking pan and all. when the water in the baking pan has cooled, lift the flan mold out and set it to finish cooling on a rack for an hour or two. Then cover and store it in the fridge. Serve the flan cold.
To serve, run a knife around the inner edges. Turn the flan over onto a plate. Shake it gently to loosen it. Lift the mold carefully and watch, entranced, as the caramel syrup runs over the baked cream custard.
Coconut Flan: use 1 can coconut cream instead of the milk. Use only 1 and 1/2 cups whipping cream.
Mango Flan: Add 1 cup sieved, puréed mango pulp and 1 Tablespoon rum to the recipe.