When a friend from church announced that she was being deployed to Afghanistan, it was time for a dinner to send her off in style. What would Erica want for her last meal with us?
Tex-Mex, she said. And Tex-Mex she got.
Everyone in the group pitched in with a lengthy array of delicious dishes from beef enchiladas and tacos to fresh guacamole and borracho beans. I decided I would make flan, simply because I had never made it before.
I had certainly eaten enough of this caramel-topped custard in my years, but making it was another matter. I experienced a little trepidation about making it, though, because I’ve failed at making caramel and melted sugar candies in the past. It was time to try it again, if only for Erica’s sake.
The first thing I had to do was find a recipe. I turned to the original “Joy of Cooking” and found one of the oddest recipes for flan I’ve ever seen. The dish in the book is actually called Custard Tarts or Flan with Fruit, and the recipe reads: “Fill Prebaked Tart Shells … with: 1/2-inch layer of Baked Custard. Top the custard with: Strawberries or other berries, cooked, drained apples, drained cherries, peaches, bananas, pineapple or coconut.”
Not a help. And certainly not the flan I remembered that was an egg-rich custard topped with a silky caramel that ran down the sides and flooded the plate.
I thumbed through a number of other cookbooks that were unfortunately no help. “Make a caramel …” would be the full extent of directions offered. Mexican chef Rick Bayless was no help. His new cookbook, “Fiesta at Rick’s,” features a flan recipe, yet it is far from traditional. Instead of caramel, the coffee-flavored “Café de Olla” Flan calls for pre-
made cajeta. Bayless’ introduction offered no comfort, either: “This recipe is an unorthodox approach to flan, since the caramelized sugar — a kitchen terrorist if ever I have seen one — is replaced by store-bought cajeta (goat milk caramel) and the custards are baked in flexible silicone muffin molds for easy removal.”
“A kitchen terrorist”? Oy, what had I gotten myself into?
So, I pulled out the 1997 edition of “The Joy of Cooking.” If you are a cookbook foodie, you know this is the much-maligned edition of the otherwise beloved cookbook, the version that was deemed too hoity-toity for the general populace. Yet the description of how to make a traditional flan, or crème caramel, as the French call it, was written in plain English.
To make the caramel, you had to pay attention. Watch the pot of water and sugar boil, and you’ll do fine, the authors seemed to be saying. So, I gave it a shot. I made sure I had all my ramekins ready and handy before I filled a small saucepan with 3/4 cup sugar and topped it with 1/4 cup water. I didn’t stir the pot but swirled it as it cooked over medium heat. Eventually, the mixture cleared, just as the book said it would.
So far so good. I raised the temperature and brought the mixture to a boil, then covered it for what seemed like an eternal 2 minutes. Any moment, the syrup would boil over, I feared, because the lid was making an angry racket. Then I uncovered it and continued to watch it boil. And watch it and watch it. I swirled it regularly to make the time pass. After a few minutes, the mixture started to get somewhat darker. No matter how long you’ve been watching the syrup, do not let your attention wander at this point. Watch it closely as it gets darker and darker in a matter of seconds. When it’s the color of a fine bourbon, it’s time to remove it from the heat.
I was so excited to see the syrup turn dark that I almost let it go a little longer on the heat than it should. Get it too dark and you’ll burn the sugar and the caramel will solidify in the bottom of your pan.
Be ready to work quickly at this point. Grab a ramekin and swirl a little in the bottom and slightly up the sides. The book said to get it halfway up the sides, but I wasn’t fast enough for that. The caramel had solidified in seconds, and I had more dishes to coat. So, I divided the lot equally among the dishes and let them set.
At this point, it’s time to make the egg custard, which seems easy in comparison. Yet it is also easy to mess up, if you are not careful. Don’t let your milk get so hot that it cooks the eggs before you bake them in the oven. Use one hand to pour the milk into the egg mixture slowly while whisking constantly with the other. Divide the egg mixture among the caramel-lined ramekins, then place the dishes into a large pan and fill halfway with boiling water. Place the pan carefully in the oven to bake.
I somehow jostled the tray as I was sliding it into the oven and the egg mixture spilled over the sides. It baked to the outside of the ramekins, but it was no great problem, because your guests won’t see the ramekins anyway.
The stress of making the caramel had made me somewhat anxious. My thought was, is all this worth it? Do I really need to do all that?
After 50 minutes or so, the custards looked good enough to eat. But I couldn’t. The recipe said to let them chill first.
Plus, my work wasn’t done. I had another recipe to make because of how many would be at the dinner. For the second batch, I decided to try the Orange and Tequila Flan from “The Golden Book of Desserts.” The description of how to make the caramel was a little too basic, so I used the knowledge I had gained from the first recipe and put it to work.
This time there were no problems, no kitchen terrors. The procedure went flawlessly, even though the recipe was a little more involved. Having made the first batch, the second seemed positively easy.
Inverting the flans proved to be simple, too. Thanks to the help of a friend, a knife and a pot of almost boiling water, each serving came out beautifully with that caramel bath covering each plate.
Best of all, Erica seemed to enjoy it. I’ll have to make it again when she comes back in six months. God keep her safe.