Archive for baking
My guy Manuel Luna will be here in a short week or two! Naturally I’m excited to see him, but I’m almost as excited to help him unpack… he goes to the fabulous pre-hispanic market in Tlaxcala and buys out the man who stocks real vanilla from Papantla, and being an engineer, he REALLY packs the 3/4 liter glass bottles so there’s no chance one will burst open in his carry-on.
Why is this so exciting? You really have to smell the stuff to understand. All over Mexico “real” vanilla is sold, particularly in tourist areas, but frankly, the stuff we get here is like an industrial cleaning product compared to the elixir Manuel hikes over on his visits from the mainland, and loads me down with when I visit him on his side of the water.
I treasure this stuff, the real deal from Papantla, where vanilla was born and from which it was sent forth, another precious gift from Mexico, into the world, eventually settling in Madagascar, Indonesia, China, Tonga… wherever it could be cultivated and successfully pollinated.
Cortez fell in love with it, but the Spaniards couldn’t figure out the trick. In the 1800s it was finally determined that a vanilla orchid flower, which blooms only once a year for one day, could be artifically pollinated rather than relying on the very rare bee found only in Papantla, whose time honored job has always been to pollinate the orchids as well as their hosts, the groves citrus trees which also grow in the area.
Manuel and I talk about an early summer excursion to take part in Papantla’s pre-hispanic vanilla celebration, where we plan to OD on vanilla, locally grown coffee and traditional dances, notably the fabled Voladores–men who tie themselves to the top of a tall pole and jump off upside down… some playing flutes as they descend!
And of course we have to taste xanath, the Totonaco Indian word for vanilla and also for a beautiful vanilla liqueur rarely found outside northern Veracruz. We’ll shop for vanilla–the real deal–and vanilla crafts such as small baskets and other forms made from vanilla beans which they say hold their intense perfume for up to seven years.
Gee, I wonder if we can afford it… I failed to mention–those 3/4 liter bottles of vanilla so fragrant it brings tears to my eyes set Manuel back $20 PESOS a bottle at the Tlaxcala market!
Heavy sigh… if only we could get the stuff here…
P.S. Did you know that Mexico is the largest producer of honey in the world? Papantla’s, of course, is perfumed with orange blossoms…
Hello, and happy Spring!
Today I’m inspired to talk about Mexico’s creamy classic dessert, flan…
Some have never eaten flan, and others have fallen on funky flan! Fortunate diners have had the full on flan experience, which rivals good cheesecake as a dessert classic and can run the gamut from basic vanilla to baroque chocoflan to suit the most demanding dessert-o-holic’s palate — but have no idea how to create the flan fantasy for themselves.
Similar to creme brulee, flan’s caramel sauce is baked on the bottom to be inverted and served as a liquid topping that requires a serving platter with a lip to contain every golden drop.
I’ve never had a flan fail to flip. This is because the custard floats on its base of liquid caramel, and all it takes to release it from its mold is to run a sharp knife around the sides, once it has been thoroughly chilled. Simply place your platter over the mold, and FLIP! Fabulous flan!
It’s all technique. Melting the sugar for the caramel topping is simple. Get a heavy skillet, place over medium heat, add 3/4 c. sugar and let it stand until you can see the sugar clearly melting; the top sugar layer will be floating on melted caramel. At this point stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar is mostly melted; turn off the heat and continue to stir until completely melted and golden.
Have a mold ready to receive the caramel. I use a glass souffle baker, which I preheat with some boiling water, drying it well just before pouring in the melted sugar. IMMEDIATELY tilt the mold around to coat the bottom and 1/2-1″ up the sides with caramel, working quickly as it sets up fast. Set aside to cool until you can place your hand on the sugar to avoid scrambling the eggs in your custard.
You need a water bath to bake the custard; eggs are delicate and really need this insulation from the oven’s heat. Find a baking dish that will hold the mold with room to spare. Measure the water by placing the mold in the baking dish and adding water to about custard-level. Remove the mold and heat the measured water almost to boiling. Preheat your oven to 325.
The custard is a simple thing. Pour a 14 oz. can of Eagle Brand sweeteened condensed milk (La Lechera in Mexico) into your blender jar. Using the same can, measure milk, half and half or cream (depending on how rich you want your flan) and add it to the blender. Break four large eggs in with the milk and voila! Basic flan! Add flavoring of your choice — good quality vanilla, coffee powder dissolved in hot water, Bailey’s, Kahlua, orange zest, a can-full of fresh corn kernels… only your imagination limits your choices.
WHIZZZ the custard thoroughly and pour into your cooled, caramel lined mold. Place the baking dish with hot water in the oven, carefully add the flan in its mold and bake for an hour.
Now the tricky part. Is it done?
The flan should be puffed and a beautiful golden brown. If this is not the case, let it bake another 10-15 minutes and check again. Puffed and brown? Great! Now give it the Jiggle Test. Pay no attention to recipes suggesting that a knife inserted off center will come away clean. By that point your flan is WAAAY overdone!
Give it a judicious jiggle. If it has a liquid sort of jiggle, like an old-style water bed, let it bake another 5 and try again. It should have a happy little jello-type jiggle… in which case it’s done! Take it straight out of the oven, and out of the water bath to cool completely before chilling at least 3 hours prior to flipping.
¡Fabuloso! You’ve mastered the perfect flan! There it sits in its pond of golden caramel awaiting your pleasure. You can, of course, serve it just as-is as a finale to even the most elegant meal. OR… you can certainly gild the lily, adding fresh berries or sliced peaches and a final drizzle of cream before serving, or go completely crazy and pipe whipped cream rosettes and drizzle with hot fudge sauce…
In the end, what you do with your flan in your own home between consenting adults is really up to you.