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For Mother’s Day, my husband made me flan. That’s it at the top of the page, with my portion already gleefully consumed.
I love flan. I love all things custardy: flan, crème brulee, those Danish tarts with the glazed fruit on top. If it jiggles, ever so slightly, that’s my bowl of cream. But for the life of me, I cannot make it. The custard curdles, or it won’t set, or it somehow sets too well and cracks apart.
My husband hates all things jiggly: custard, pudding, Jell-O, and nearly everything that appears in a dim sum cart. But he got it into his head that flan was what I wanted, so flan I would have. He checked recipe books. He watched The Great British Baking Show and Alton Brown videos. He consulted the Internet at large. And then he coated a pie plate with caramel, poured in a perfect custard, and made me flan.
It was so delicious, even he liked it.
We can’t live without food. It nourishes us, it gives us energy, it provides us with the building blocks we need to grow and maintain our bodies. It allows our muscles to contract, our heart to pump blood, our lungs to pump in the air we need to process that food. It keeps our greedy brains, which consume 20% of the calories we eat, running smoothly.
And yet, food represents so much more. It’s the tortillas my abuela made by hand, the deep dish pizza I first tried in Chicago, the face pancakes my mother always made for our birthdays. It’s the fried clams that taste twice as good after sailing across Boston Harbor to Hull and the chai latte at my favorite café and the cream sauce my father-in-law invented and the challah I braid because my daughter loves it. It’s the salad I made from my very first garden and the zucchini I grew bigger than my forearm and stuffed with deliciousness and the raspberry rhubarb crumble made from raspberries I picked fifteen minutes before. It’s the terrible sandwiches my husband and I took on our first date when we got lost hiking in the Blue Hills and ate in the rain. It’s the first time I made tortillas by myself in college.
Smells trigger memories. The smell of mint takes me right back to my student days when I walked past a candy factory to get to class, and the smell of green chile puts me on the streets of Albuquerque in July, when you can smell roasting chile everywhere. Food becomes a road map through our lives, and we tend to remember most clearly the worst (all the pickles I begged off my classmates and ate on one hamburger, more pickle than meat) and the best (the chicken cacciatore Mom made for my birthday every year). And now flan.
Good writing is like this. It’s more than just entertainment. Good writing connects with the reader. Most readers I know can recall vividly the first time they read a particular book and map their lives through those books. I certainly do: the Black Stallion novels I loved when I was eight, that day when I was nine and the children’s librarian led me into the adult section and put The Fellowship of the Ring in my hands, my eighth grade teacher knocking Lord Foul’s Bane out of my hands with a well-aimed chalk eraser. And writers often say they write a particular novel for a particular person, hence the dedication page. I wrote my first novel, A Witch’s Kitchen, for my children, packing into it my love of cooking along with many of the lessons I wanted to them to learn, as well as all the love I have to give. To my surprise, more than one parent has told me it brought them to tears. Stories are more than just words.
Cooking is more than just food. Food nourishes the body. Cooking nourishes the soul.
Here is the recipe my husband adapted from Alton Brown’s Flandango.
½ cup water
1 cup raw or light brown sugar
1-1/2 cups 2% milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup raw sugar
Prepare the caramel: combine water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook 10-15 minutes, swirling the caramel, covering all sides of the pan, until the mixture is a deep caramel color. Coat a 9-inch pie plate with the caramel and place in a roasting pan. Fill the pan with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the pie plate. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Prepare the custard: In a separate saucepan, combine the milk, cream, vanilla, and remaining sugar. Bring to a bare simmer over medium-low heat. Separate 3 eggs, reserving the whites. In a mixing bowl or stand mixer, combine the yolks and remaining whole eggs. Whip the eggs with a whisk until slightly thickened and light in color. While continuing to whisk the eggs, drizzle in about a quarter of the hot milk mixture. Do this SLOWLY to prevent curdling. Now whisk the tempered eggs back into the saucepan with the remaining milk mixture.
Place a fine mesh strainer over a glass or stainless steel bowl with a spout. Pour the egg mixture through the strainer in order to catch any curdled egg bits or particles. Pour the custard into the pie plate, and place the roasting pan in the oven. Cook for about 40 minutes or until they wobble slightly when the pan is wiggled. You can also insert a paring knife midway between the edge and the center. If it comes out clean, the flan is done.
Carefully remove the pie plate from the roasting pan – silicone mitts or gloves work well. Let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight or for at least four hours. To serve, run a knife around the sides of the pie plate. Place a plate or platter on top of the pie plate and quickly flip over. The flan should slide neatly onto the plate. Serves six.