Monday, 9 May 2011

Cinco de Mayo 2011: The Flan

What is the first thing you think of when you hear "Cinco de Mayo?" I will venture a guess you may have first thought of Mexico's Independence Day rather than the Battle of Puebla in the early 1860s following Mexico's French occupation, or perhaps margaritas or deep fried ice cream before queso frecso and chorizo. In either case, Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of the former (though, margaritas tend to be a staple it seems), but rather of the heritage, resilience, and authenticity, of the people of Estados Unidos Mexicanos. However celebrated, I find today's Cinco de Mayo--at least, as celebrated here in the States--to represent what all other holidays represent: a communal gathering around food, which in this case is Mexican inspired. As far as a culinary challenge was concerned for this year's celebration, it was suggested I try my hand at flan (which was a better suggestion than my initial thought of making a sombrero-looking cake) for a colleague's fourth annual Cinco de Mayo party. For me, flan is among the many dishes I refused to eat growing up (alongside seafood and eggplant) and being Filipino, the opportunity to try it was present at nearly every party. I did not, however, try flan and enjoy it until very recently (about three weeks ago) when a Filipino student on campus made some on campus and brought it the night of the tinikling performance. As was the case with seafood and eggplant, it seems my palate has become much more accepting and the journey through food seems to have fewer roadblocks as I progress.Take note not to let the opening photo of this post fool you; though the dish itself is theoretically on the easier side of the spectrum in terms of preparation, I was reminded last week that there are off nights which complicate procedure. Last Wednesday was one such night.

Flan is made of very humble ingredients and, like other global fare, has been adapted numerous times; this certainly includes my attempt. While there are at least two techniques available to begin, it is clear we must first start off with making the caramel (ergo the French version of this dish, crème caramel) which will eventually coat the flan once out of the pan. The two techniques I refer to--wet and dry--are ways in which one can best melt the sugar to form the caramel itself. While I have worked recently with the wet method (melting the sugar in boiling water), I have also used the variant of melting the sugar in boiling lemon juice, the base of the dry technique. In this recipe attributed to various authors, the aforementioned ingredients (and essentially, techniques) are combined from the onset; as this helpful recipe notes, the use of an acid (in this case, lemon juice) when making the caramel utilising the dry method is important to prevent the caramel from seizing (read: crystallizing) during the cooking process. All of this is to say I decided to begin by recombining the possibilities and first starting with the dry method by adding a few drops of lemon juice (1/4 tsp) to 1/2 c granulated sugar. After using a fork to work in the lemon juice, the sugar should resemble something like wet sand. To fully go with the dry method, you could just heat up the sugar until it melts (ergo, cooking with a dry pan), but I incorporated the wet method by dissolving this sugar sand in 3 tbsp water (i.e., the pan was wet). By the time the water has evaporated, the sugar will have evenly melted and on its way to resembling caramel. As this is all going, in a separate pot, get some water boiling.

When making caramel, it is important to let the heat do the work. Go ahead and use a fork or spoon to stir the sugar into the water to help it dissolve more evenly, but stop stirring when the sugar begins to simmer and reach the boiling stage. Especially from here on out, please be careful when working with the sugar; this certainly has the potential to cause serious burns.

Alongside the aforementioned warning, I urge you to have your flan pan nearby and to pay attention to the caramel. It can go from great to terrible in an instant (and taking time to photograph the right frame is not the most helpful in this process), as exemplified above. The above left photo went from "ooh, it smells like caramel; I must be doing something right" to "eugh, this smells bitter," followed by a fire detector going off, within a 30 second time frame. As the sugar will still tend to cook due to any residual heat, be sure to transfer and coat the surface of the flan pan when you see the caramel is just beginning to turn amber in colour and can be recognised as starting to smell like caramel, as shown in the photo above right. Before the caramel fully hardens in the pan, quickly use a spoon to evenly coat the pan with caramel.

For the custard part of the flan, you could simply mix the ingredients together, pour it over the cooled caramel-lined flan pan, and bake it; I, of course, did not go with simple, and decided to go ahead and heat up one 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk, 1.5 cans of milk (here, 1%) and 1/2 c granulated sugar. Heating/scalding this all together until the liquid foams and risks overflowing the pot helps to not only combine the milk to a smooth consistency but also helps to melt and distribute the granulated sugar. While this is all heating up, in a clean, heatproof bowl, gently break apart and blend six whole eggs. In contrast to my previous post when I wanted to incorporate air into the egg mixture, the goal here is to combine the yolk and egg white with incorporating as little air as possible. Whipping the eggs together, and thus introducing air, will affect the consistency and texture of the flan. Once everything is properly prepped, about 1/4 of the heated liquid should be slowly added to the eggs. Again, blend slowly (but quickly) the milk and eggs. Then, add another quarter of the milk and blend thoroughly. Continue doing this (i.e., tempering the eggs) until all the milk has been incorporated into the eggs. This process is particularly important as the milk mix is certainly hot enough to scramble (i.e., cook) the eggs.

If tempered properly, your custard will not have any egg solids but, just to be safe, use a sieve (or in my case, improvise with a cheese grater) to strain any solids away. If you do have a sieve, it's best to go ahead and slowly strain the custard over the prepped flan pan so it can go straight into your pre-heated 325 °F oven sooner rather than later. If you are using a cheese grater, etc., slowly add the custard to the pan after straining. Essentially, you would be saving a step if you had a sieve (and the process wouldn't look as ridiculous as presented here). Oh, and before I forget to mention, check your flan pan before you pour in the custard. I noticed a little too late the pan had a hole on which to hang the flan pan and so the custard leaked as I got to the top of it. Use a piece of aluminum foil to stop any custard from leaking.

If you have not done so by now (though you will have if you read this post in its entirety before attempting this dish), transfer the flan pan to a dish bigger than the pan itself. One of the recognisible components of the entire flan making process is the use of the bain-marie / baño de Maria / water bath which is used for other delicate dishes such as pôt de crème. By now, the pot I had you start boiling at the beginning of this post should be boiling; slowly add this to the larger dish. Bake the flan for about an hour, making sure to rotate the pan 180° halfway through baking. The flan is ready to come out of the oven when a knife entered halfway comes out cleanly.

Once out of the oven, get the flan out (or in my case, and because of the shape of the pan, pry the flan out) of the bain-marie and into a refrigerator immediately and let it set in the fridge for at least one hour. For best results, leave it in the fridge for at least 8 hours; you can certainly leave it in longer but just be sure not to turn out the flan until you are ready to eat it. Click here for the other flan photos, and click here to read about the Cinco de Mayo party went, as well as how the flan turned out.

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