Saturday, November 26, 2011

Leche Flan

If you're Pinoy or have eaten at a Pinoy's house, chances are you've experienced the majesty of the leche flan. Much creamier and sweeter than its Latin American counterpart, the leche flan was introduced to Filipino cuisine during the Spanish occupation (1521-1898) and has graced Pinoy dinner tables since. It's also added as a garnish to halo-halo. The dessert's attraction comes from its apparent effortlessness, requiring less than five ingredients normally found in the Pinoy cupboard.

I've taken over leche flan duties for the holidays early in my high school years, but I've continued to tweak the recipe and method to get it perfect. The best leche flans have the texture of a solid creme brulĂ©e that does not jiggle like Spanish flan, with no air bubbles. The air bubbles can make the leche flan taste like overcooked, curdled custard. To me, this element is the hardest to master. I've always used the open-steaming method, but I've discovered that the best way to achieve the desired texture is to bake it in a bain-marie, or a water bath. 

You want this.

Not this bubbly business. 
For this year's Thanksgiving, I baked three leche flans this way and hoped for the best. The result was divine - and I'm so pleased to have finally perfected my recipe. 

Leche Flan

1 can evaporated milk 
1 can condensed milk 
10 egg yolks at room temperature 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

For the caramel: 
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup water 

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and boil some water in a kettle.
  2. This step takes some patience and babysitting. In a medium sized saucepan, add the sugar and water over low heat. Make sure all the sugar is dissolved by the water. Do not let the sugar water boil vigorously. Do not mix the sugar water. Leave it alone, moving the pan by its handle to see if the sugar has thickened and lightly browned - a light amber color. When it's done, remove from heat. Even if it's a little lighter than you want, it'll continue to cook from the residual heat in the pot. *Some recipes call to boil the sugar which is such a mistake! 
  3. Pour the caramelized sugar into aluminum molds and spread to evenly cover the bottoms. 
  4. Mix the evaporated milk, condensed milk, and egg yolks slowly with a rubber spatula. Many recipes call for a mixer, but this only contributes to more bubbles. Blend the vanilla. 
  5. Gently pour the mixture in the molds, on top of the caramel. Fill the molds to about an inch thick. 
  6. Place molds in a deep flat pan - I use a roasting pan because the handles come in handy in carrying the pan with the hot water to cool on the counter. Place pan in the oven's middle rack. Carefully pour hot water into the pan, filling up halfway to the molds. 
  7. Bake for 45-60 minutes. They're done when an inserted knife comes out clean. 
  8. Remove the pan very carefully from the oven. Some of the water should have evaporated. Remove the molds from the pan and let cool to room temperature. 
  9. Chill in the refrigerator overnight. 
  10. When you're ready to serve, fill the sink with some warm water. Place the molds there for a few seconds. Using a sharp knife, separate the sides of the flan from the mold. Invert quickly onto a plate. 
My late grandfather used to call this dish my specialty. I wish he were alive to taste it now! Oh, Lolo - how far I've come since then. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Edition: Origins of the Tamayo Thanksgiving and Postcolonial Reflections

In the past month, whole food advocates have suffered severe attrition from the political landscape. In sum,  pizza (with enough tomato paste) passes as a vegetable in school lunches, the USDA is cutting back on critical research, consumers have been fed mislabeled fish, and the Super Committee's failure could mean serious cuts for the FDA.

As I schlepped through my Thanksgiving food shopping this morning, a dark, dismal cloud of despondency hovered over my head, my negativity worsening with every processed food purchase ringing at the registers. Notwithstanding the holiday's ignoble origins, Thanksgiving was my absolute favorite American holiday. My family didn't celebrate until years after we immigrated to the States, mostly because we felt detached from its apparent purpose - to commemorate the friendship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans with a golden turkey. What the hell did that have to do with us? Between working two jobs, raising three kids, and supporting a spouse studying for the medical board exams, my mother felt the holiday's demands to conjure a feast for patriotic purposes absurd and frivolous. As an adolescent, I felt alienated from the other kids who excitedly chatted about their Thanksgiving plans and returned from the long weekend with Guinness World Record feats of eating. 

My family soon caught on and thought it was a good reason to have turkey and my grandfather's famous baked ham. Turkey soon disappeared from the menu and the ham remains the porcine prize of the dinner table, flanked with white rice, my grandmother's incomparable pancit, my leche flan, and my mother's fruit salad. Over the years some experimental dishes would appear - candied yams, spinach lasagna, stuffing - but the five Filipino dishes have a fiercely tenacious presence on Thanksgiving. An extra holiday (other than Christmas and New Year) when we had the chance to weigh our plates with these dishes sounded like welcome news to me - without the mad rush of Christmas gift-giving and the unavoidable reflection of the past twelve months of the New Year. Give thanks and eat. 

Now it seems like a serious serving of cognitive dissonance is necessary to derive pleasure from the holiday. Was that beautifully dressed ham processed in the Smithfield plant in North Carolina, where pig manure runoffs pool into "lagoons," contaminating the drinking water and the soil? Besides questioning the source of our food, I lapse into the self-flaggelation of privileged guilt: One billion people on earth are starving and I refuse leftovers? 

Perhaps I will never reclaim that politically insular sensibility, which kind of sucks. I guess that was the tradeoff: a privileged existence living in a "superpower"nation, while fighting for our right for access to  wholesome food, surrendering a humbler life with a basket full from that morning's catch from the sea.