Growing up, I remember my mom laboring over many desserts and sweets. For someone who thought of cooking as a perfunctory task, she was a pretty good baker. Only problem was, once she tried a new recipe, it was typically one and done, never to be repeated again. Like the banana pudding lined with Nilla® Wafers she made when I was about seven. I sang the praises of that pudding as I inhaled it. My mother thought otherwise of that dessert. I begged for months afterwards for her to make the banana pudding, but she refused. Then there were the iced sugar cookies she made one Christmas using these detailed cookie cutters from Tupperware. I had specifically asked for her to make these, jealous that my friend’s, Kathy O’Neill, mother would show up in our classroom with these elaborately decorated cookies. I seem to remember her decorating the Santa cookies late into the night, cursing me, Kathy and all that was good on earth. It was years later that I realized my mother’s mistake was baking and decorating the cookies all in the same evening a process that can take a few days when planning correctly.
The only two things that I remember her baking with some regularity were her banana bread and flan. What are the two things I can’t master? Yeast-based bread (which her banana bread is not) and flan. I know what my problem bread are–making the dough rise, which means mastering yeast and how it’s handled. With flan, my issues include the inability to brown the sugar sufficiently to get it to turn into a thick caramel; cracking the custard so it’s never in tact when I unmold it; and having the custard run too thin, making for a soft, almost pudding-like dessert. My difficulties with making bread rise angers me. My inability to bake flan makes me feel inadequate as a Latina cook. To quote Public Image Ltd., “anger is an energy.” I might be able to use that to master bread making. With flan, all I can do is address the inadequacies.
Over the past few years I have struck up a friendship with the human resources director at my current employer. Cuban born, Maria immigrated here with her family when she was six and grew up in the states. I will be the first to tell you that a shared common nationality is not enough to sustain a friendship, but it did spark a curiosity and through conversation we’ve discovered similar life experiences, a love of our culture and its food. I asked Maria why she thought so many people have food as a touch point in their lives?
“I think there are so many traditions wrapped around food, especially in our culture,” explained Maria. “There is meaning in what we eat and why we eat it. There is pride in the fact that the food is unique to our culture. There is joy in working together to produce a wonderful meal. I even see this in the younger generations as both my nieces have enjoyed learning the Cuban craft of cooking and are a great help to me especially around the holidays.”
From our many talks, it became clear that Maria not only enjoyed Cuban cuisine, she was skilled at preparing Cuban food, including the flan that has so eluded me my entire life. Like many cooks, Maria learned her skills from her grandmother and mother before her.
“We were very blessed to have cooks in Cuba, but my grandmother always played a role in the meals and enjoyed cooking on the cook’s day off,” reminisced Maria. “It was fun and I remember working in the kitchen with her and having a wonderful time. My mother’s influence was keeping a clean and organized kitchen. I follow a pretty strict process when I cook and bake. I clean as I go. I know she would be very proud of me today.”
Today, Maria finds herself in the role of family matriarch and is passing along traditions and Cuban recipes such as flan and cerdo asado (roasted pork) to the next generation.
“I really don’t fear that traditions are recipes will be lost because the younger generation continues to show me how much they value the traditions!” says Maria.
Being of a generous heart, Maria agreed to teach me how to make flan on one of her visits to our offices in D.C. In exchange, I would make my ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban dish, in a crock pot. Our friend and colleague Kristin came as well, not to learn to make flan or ropa vieja, but just to eat and be entertained by our happy chatter.
Before Maria’s arrival, I was sent a list of ingredients and supplies to have on hand, including a flan mold. I made a mental note that perhaps this was also part of my problem–I didn’t know I needed a flan mold to bake flan.
It was fun to watch her at work. Like her grandmother, Maria does not rely on measuring cups or spoons. Instead, she is guided by instincts when it comes to measuring out her ingredients. I, on the other hand, am a precision cook, at least when it comes to baking. Measuring cups and spoons are always within my reach when baking.
She also executed patience in melting and caramelizing the sugar, which is part of my problem in making flan, having the patience to stir sugar for 20 minutes. This is a very critical step in flan since it’s what gives the dessert it’s distinct caramel topping. I can invest time in making a risotto, but somehow, working with sugar over an open flame intimidates and frustrates me. But I am confident that if I apply Maria’s technique for melting and browning the sugar over low heat, I could master that skill.
In Maria’s family, flan is made for special occasions and holidays. I plan to replicate her flan faithfully for my family celebration on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and maybe in years to come, it will become a favorite in my family much like mother’s version or her banana bread. Desserts as good as Maria’s flan or even the banana pudding that I often taste in my dreams are meant to be shared over and over in times of celebration, or any day when time allows for such delicacies.
So just in time for Christmas, I present you with Maria’s recipe for flan.
Maria’s Fabulous Flan
1 cup of sugar
4 whole eggs, plus 2 egg yolks, at room temperature
A pinch of salt
1 can (12 oz) of evaporated milk
1 can (14 oz) condensed milk sweetened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Fill a roasting pan midway with water and set it in the oven.
- Pour the sugar into a small pan over low flame.
- Stir continuously for about 20 minutes until the sugar turns brown and starts to boil.
- Pour the caramelized sugar into a deep cake pan. Swirl the sugar all around the bottom and along the sides of the pan until it is completely coated.
- In a bowl beat the whole eggs and the egg yolks with a fork until just mixed.
- Add a pinch of salt, the evaporated milk, the condensed milk and vanilla extract. Stir into the egg mixture.
- Using a fine mesh strainer, pour the egg mixture through the strainer into the pan with the caramel. Discard the solids.
- Set the custard mixture into the roasting pan bath in the oven and bake for 90 minutes.
- Remove from oven and allow to completely cool at room temperature.
- Chill the flan overnight.
- To serve, run a warm knife around the edge of the flan. Cover the baking page with the serving plate and flip the plate over, gently lift the pan from the flan.