Saturday, August 11, 2012

Flan for Mexican Night!

We're having some friends over for dinner tonight, Todd is cooking from one of his favorite new cookbooks, Latin Grilling.  (He's making the Yucatecan Barbecue.)  I told him I'd take care of dessert.  Although I'm sure there are many amazing Mexican desserts out there, flan is one that's easy, quick and almost universally loved!  So, that's what I'm making...

Flan is what's called a baked custard, meaning that it's baked to cook instead of stirred.  Very basically, a custard is a liquid thickened or set by the coagulation of egg protein.  Sounds yummy, huh?  Some other examples of baked custards are creme brulees, pots de creme and creme caramel (which is very similar to flan).  The other kind of custard is a stirred custard, which is a custard that is cooked by stirring on the stovetop, like creme anglaise, pastry cream and the liquid that's frozen to make ice cream.  A general rule for custards is that they can't be cooked to over 185 degrees internally or they will curdle. 

The amount and proportion of eggs, yolks/whites to liquid, as well as the type of liquid (cream/milk or combination) determines the consistency of the final product.  If a custard is going to be unmolded (like these flan), it needs to have more egg than a baked custard that will be served in the dish in which it is baked.  The additional egg provides stability, which is needed when the custard is turned out of the dish. Although the egg whites set the custard, the egg yolks make it creamy and rich.  Using whole eggs with yolks makes it the easiest to unmold after chilling. 

Here's my recipe...

Yield: six 4-oz servings

2 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 cups milk (whole milk works best for this)
1 tsp vanilla (or the contents of one vanilla bean)
pinch salt
1/3 cup sugar + 1/2 cup sugar

That's it!  Eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla!  Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and find a rectangular baking pan (that 9x12 you use to make brownies works here) and set aside.  To make the hallmark caramel topping for the flan, begin by making a caramel.  Take your 1/2 cup sugar, add a few ounces of water, stir and put the pan on the stovetop.  Cook until the sugar melts, then thickens, then finally darkens to a light amber caramel.  You should use a brush dipped in ice water to clean the sides of your pan of sugar so that the mixture will not crystallize.  If you are left with a big hardened mess, your sugar is crystallized and you will need to start again.  If the sugar is darkening too quickly for your liking, you can always turn the heat down on your burner.  Once the caramel is ready, move quickly and pour a little into the bottom of each of six ramekins, swirling around in the bottom to coat.  Do these one at a time, because the caramel will harden shortly after it hits the cool bottom of your ramekin.  It shouldn't take more than a few seconds for it to fully harden.

Ramekins with hardened caramel

Now, prepare your custard.  Put the 2 cups milk in a saucepan, heat to scalding.  While it's heating up, combine the rest of your ingredients in a bowl, whisk to combine, dissolve sugar.  Don't whisk so hard that you fully aerate the mixture.  Although you want the sugar to dissolve, you don't want a lot of bubbles.  Once the milk is scalded (thin skin on top, not yet boiling), pour it over your egg mixture, whisking constantly.  Whisk to combine, then pour through a fine-mesh sieve (metal strainer) into a clean bowl.  (Get a quart or so of water on to boil at this point for your water bath.)  Pour equal amounts of the custard into your six prepared, caramel-bottomed ramekins.  Put all the ramekins into your 9x13 baking pan and carefully move the pan to the oven.  Pour the hot water carefully into the side of the pan, making sure not to splash into your flans.  You want the water to go at least halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Carefully push the pan into the oven, close the door and bake for about 40-45 minutes.  Remove from the oven, cool, then refrigerate.  These can definitely sit overnight! To unmold, remove from the fridge, wipe the bottom of the ramekin with a hot washcloth, then invert onto the plate.  You may have to wiggle it a little from side to side. The flan should slide from the ramekin and end up caramel side up on the dish, all beautiful-like.  Oh, and yummy.  Enjoy these, they are a treat!!

Here are some other pics of our feast: Pollo Pibil (wrapped in banana leaf), pickled red onions, guacamole, jicama lime salad, Yucatecan barbecued spare ribs and poblano quesadillas.  Our friends brought some delicious Mexican-spiced potatoes and fresh-squeezed margaritas! 

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