"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Sunday, November 13, 2011

These are a few of her favourite things

I have many nieces whom I love and adore, but my third niece was my first pretend child:  she was serious and a little intense and didn’t give herself easily, but she was always up for it with me, whatever it might be.  I took her everywhere – sometimes with her brother, sometimes not - and I cooked for her and with her.  We made real jelly out of orange juice and agar-agar and set it in orange cups.  She helped me make apricot jam from her grandparents’ tree.  We had barbeques where she instructed me that her sausages should not only burst, but the exposed meat where it had burst should be scorched almost to black.

She turned 30 yesterday, and I asked her what she wanted me to cook for her celebratory barbeque (at which point it should be noted that she has outgrown her penchant for burst-and-burnt snags).  Her request was something potatoey – potato salad would be good – and something custardy.  Well, d’uh.  Potatoes and custard are two out of her very favourite foods in the whole wide world right there, along with jelly (which my daughter took care of, admirably), bok choy, and Chinese dumplings. 

My daughter's Broken Glass Jelly
 For the potatoes, I decided against the potato salad and made instead a “potato feast” comprising of many steamed pink-eye baby spuds and four types of creamy sauce for spooning over the top:  bacon, tomato and chive, avocado mayonnaise, minted yoghurt, and toum (Lebanese garlic sauce).

And for the custard, I made her the precise same dessert I made her when she turned 21:  coconut flan (flan as in the original Spanish caramel custard, before the French stole it and called it crème caramel) and many, many mangoes (since they are another one of her favourite things).

An addiction to custard – and in particular flan, of any persuasion – is a peculiarity of all the women in my family, and it’s easy to see why:  soothing but classy, rich but light, sweet but never cloying, it is the perfect dessert.  (Yes, I said the perfect dessert:  chocolate is not dessert, it is a meal.)  And I am very, very fussy about my flan and crème caramel.

See – flan and crème caramel aren’t just about the flavour, they are about the texture.

What is wrong with this picture?  Well, there’s nothing wrong with the picture per se, it is very nicely shot, but the dessert itself?  Check out the dots all over the sides:  they are air bubbles, and have no place in either flan or crème caramel.  So while I’m sure it tasted very nice (I didn’t make this one, just found the picture on the Internet), the texture, the mouthfeel – which are every bit a part of the experience as flavour – would be all wrong.  What a shame.

And so easy to avoid.  You avoid air bubbles by simply not incorporating air into the mixture:  you lightly break up eggs, and you mix in, not beat, the remaining ingredients.  And you stay the hell away from recipes telling you to use electric beaters, blender, or food processor.

Here are the ingredients (plus a little vanilla, if you like).  It’s a little unbelievable that so few ingredients will make a dessert worthy of going on bended knee for, but oh, they will.  They so will.

First, you make a caramel and line a pan with it.  How do you do that?  Glad you asked!

Next, you lightly beat the eggs.  Now I am being very serious here:  you just want to barely combine yolk and whites, and this amount of bubbles, just on the surface, is about the maximum you want.

Add remaining ingredients, combine, and again:  see?  Very few bubbles.

Pour into your caramel-lined mould or pan.

Your dessert needs to be cooked au bain Marie, or in a water bath.  Ignore any recipe that tells you to put in hot or boiling water:  water MUST be cold or you will run the risk of cooking it too fast and again, wrecking the texture.

Remove from water bath as soon as it’s done, cool, then chill, preferably overnight, before unmoulding.   

This makes a firm flan – firm enough to cut and handle with ease.  If you would like a wobblier flan, you can use 1 1/2 tins of coconut cream.  Although we had our mangoes plain as a foil to the richness of the custard, they are also lovely drizzled with a lime and ginger syrup just before serving.
(8 servings)

3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
6 eggs
1 tin (395g.) condensed milk
1 tin (400ml) coconut cream
 1tsp. vanilla (opt.)
4 perfect mangoes, to serve

What you do:
1.  Make up caramel with sugar and water and use it to line a mould or pan, or 8 ramekins or crème caramel moulds.  Set aside while you proceed with recipe.
2.  Preheat oven to 160oC.  In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs, just until whites and yolks are amalgamated.  Add remaining ingredients, and stir (not beat) with a whisk, just until combined.  (The condensed milk tends to settle to the bottom of the bowl, so make sure that even though you’re using a light hand, you’re being thorough.)
3.  Pour mixture into caramel-lined mould/s.  Set in a roasting pan, and pour enough cold water into the roasting pan to come about 3cm up the sides.  Bake 50-60 min. for one mould, or 30-35 min. for individual servings, until custard is set and only just wobbles in the very centre. 
4.  Remove custard from roasting pan, and allow to cool at room temperature, then transfer to ‘fridge and allow to chill several hours, preferably overnight.  To unmould, there’s no need to loosen the sides.  Place serving plate over the top of the custard, then flip upside down.  It will fall out without problem, and caramel will flood the top and pool around the sides effortlessly, and look like a picture.  Halve mangoes and serve with flan.  

Yumbo McGillicutty!


  1. Lots of sound advice here and proof is in the pudding... errr... the flan. Which I would like to request for my birthday. And your "potato" salad - I already copied down every shining ingredient. Love the history behind making it - they whys and wherefores and the ties shared over the years.

  2. Oh my! I have to make this. And soon :)



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