September 1, 2012

lessons from pumpkin flan

Since moving from New York, I haven't seen most of my East Coast friends at all. But by chance my friend Vanessa was flying home to NYC after a summer in Hong Kong, and she had a layover at San Francisco airport! So I went to meet her, but before I went I asked her what her dessert preferences were so I could make something to bring her. She said: "chocolate, pumpkin, macarons". Of course I really should have made her chocolate pumpkin macarons, but instead I opted for pumpkin flan.

My favorite kind of flan is soft, silky, the melt-in-your-mouth kind that Irving Cafe sells. It's harder to get pumpkin flan this way because pumpkin is kind of fibrous and chunky. My only experience with pumpkin flan was in the fall season of 2009, after pumpkin picking, and I had overcooked it then. So I tried again with this recipe. It turned out custardy, which is better than overcooked, but still not what I'm looking for. But I learned a couple of lessons.

1) You can get caramel just by cooking sugar by itself. Without water. But keep a close eye on it, because I burned it twice. Take it off the heat as soon as a portion has turned brown. The liquid can be poured into the bottoms of the ramekins. Then soak the pot immediately in hot water, so the residual caramel can be washed off.

cooked sugar

2) When combining ingredients for flan (or anything that requires egg yolk and sugar), make sure to add the sugar last (or only when you're whisking) so the egg yolks and sugar don't sit together for any length of time. I kind of absorbed this rule subconsciously in Advanced Baking, but this article cleared up why. Basically the sugar will suck up all the moisture and cause the egg proteins to clump up.

flan ingredients

3) When you're baking anything that's supposed to turn out smooth, rich, or custardy, make sure to bake it in a hot water bath that covers half of the item's height. Cold water is no good because it will mess with the cooking time.

flan ramekins

4) You can get chocolate shavings by taking a vegetable peeler to a piece of chocolate!

chocolate shavings

5) The caramel poured in the bottom of the ramekins don't have to evenly cover the bottom, because once baked, it will spread over the bottom. (I was afraid the caramel would be spotty, but I was pleasantly surprised after I took them out.)

flan bottom

6) If you bake something in an otherwise-lidded jar, you can put the lid on later and it will be portable! That's how I was able to transport the flan.

flan top

7) Of course, I also unmolded one for myself to try. I waited for it to cool before I tried it, but I microwaved it later and it tasted better warm! So I guess the soft/silky flans taste better cold but the custardy ones taste better warm.

flan unmolded

8) Hot or cold, food always taste better when shared. With friends. With iPhone sticky picture apps. Lesson learned :)

vanessa & flan

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