I remember this one day in elementary school called World Day because it was the first time I ever danced with a boy. His name was Parker and I pretended to be grossed out by our hand-on-hand contact. I traded my inner smile for an outer scowl when we moved around awkwardly to a traditional Mexican song that I can still hear in my head but don’t know the name of, because ew, boys.
I remember World Day because at first I was devastated to have been selected for the dance that represented Mexico instead of the kitschy Western number my older sister had performed two years prior. The one that included my favorite, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” and featured cowboy boots and a sideways kick of the heels dance move that I couldn’t do if my life depended on it.
I remember World Day because in that dance with that boy and the music I still hum sometimes but don’t know the name of, I wore a white cotton top with lacy trim that hung from my shoulders, just like the tops my mother wore when she went out to parties, along with a bright purple, pink, and green striped skirt that blossomed like a flower in spring when I twirled. And I beamed standing in front of the mirror that morning because my costume, my most favorite costume in all my lengthy eight years on the planet, came from Goodwill and cost my mother just $2. Thrift pride.
But mostly, when it comes to the annual fourth-grade event that is World Day, what I remember is how each student chose a country and cooked a dish to represent that country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose Belize. And I decided, even though I’d never actually eaten one before, that I’d bring a traditional Latin Flan.
The night before the big event, my mother and I made caramel and poured it into a large round pan. We flicked our wrists as we whisked the eggs, canned milks, and whole milk together in a bowl — the milk trio giving the flan a more distinct and pungent flavor compared to its french custard counterpart, which is made with just one milk or cream — and then poured them, too, into the amber-coated pan. And when the timer went off an hour later, I peered my tiny head into the oven and called out to my mother, “It doesn’t look done. It’s still…wiggly.” She agreed. Baked desserts, so she said, weren’t supposed to wiggle. We continued to cook the flan for another fifteen then thirty then sixty minutes at which point we decided it couldn’t possibly need more time.
The next day, after all of the World Day dances had been performed, we received rave reviews for our flan despite its too-firm-like-a-shattered-hard-boiled-egg texture. And we laughed, knowing we’d done something wrong in the making of this flan but grateful that nobody seemed know the difference. Maybe they were just too kind to say anything.
Yesterday, she and I gathered in the kitchen again to make a flan, almost exactly two decades and much more kitchen experience since our first-ever attempt. With our candy thermometer out, our ramekins at the ready, and America’s Test Kitchen’s new 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials book flopped open on the counter, we began. And after exactly one hour, we popped the thermometer into one of the ramekins that lay in a towel-lined water bath and promptly removed them from the oven when it registered an exact 180 degrees F. There was no guesswork, no clueless mother-daughter flan improvisations. The warm-spiced orange and cardamom custard wiggled, jiggled and was just the right kind of sweet and silky smooth.
In just that one recipe, this book has already proved its worth. I’ve now redeemed myself from my original fourth grade flan semi-failure. But there are so many more recipes to pull from, to learn from. And lucky for all of us, ATK is kindly giving away a copy of 100 Recipes to one of you lovely readers. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below telling me about one of your “kitchen fails.” The soufflé you can never get right. That time you botched the dessert for your fancy soirée. Don’t be shy, I love a good story. I’ll randomly select a winner on Friday, December 18th.
- ⅔ cup of granulated sugar
- ¼ cup of water plus 2 tablespoons
- 2 large eggs plus 5 large yolks
- 1 (14-oz) can of sweetened condensed milk
- 1 (12-oz) can of evaporated milk
- ½ cup of whole milk
- 1½ tablespoons of vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon of table salt or 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons of orange zest
- ¼ teaspoon of ground cardamom
- Mint (for garnish)
- Special equipment: A candy thermometer
- This recipe can be prepared using either one large loaf pan of about 8x4 inches or 4 mini 1-cup- cocottes or ramekins. Have your loaf pan or ramekins ready so that you can quickly pour the caramel sauce into them when it's ready.
- Stir together sugar and ¼ cup of water in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan until sugar is completely moistened. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, about 4 to 6 minutes and stir once. Cook, without stirring, until mixture begins to turn a golden color, about 2-3 minutes. Gently swirl the pan and continue to cook until sugar turns a dark camel color, like peanut butter color, about another 1-2 minutes. Finally, remove from heat and swirl the pan until sugar is a reddish-amber color and fragrant, about 15 seconds. Continue to swirl the pan and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of warm water to the caramel, swirling until incorporated. Be careful when you do this. The sugar mixture will crackle, bubble, and steam but will eventually incorporate the water and thin out while you swirl. Pour the sauce either into your single loaf pan or divide amongst the individual ramekins. Set aside
- Adjust oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line the bottom of a 13x9-inch rimmed baking pan with a dish towel, making sure the dish towel is folded to lay evenly and flat on the bottom of the baking pan. Set pan aside and bring 2 quarts of water to a boil.
- In a large bowl, whisk eggs and yolks together until combined. Add sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk, vanilla, salt, orange zest, and cardamom and whisk until incorporated. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and pour either into prepared loaf pan or individual ramekins.
- Cover the loaf pan or ramekins tightly with aluminum foil and place in prepared baking pan. Place baking pan in the oven adn carefully pour the boiling water into the bottom of the pan, on top of the dish towel, making sure that the water does not rise higher than the rims of the loaf pan or ramekins. Bake until the center of the custard jiggles slightly when shaken and custard registers 180 degrees. This will take about 1 hour if you're using individually-sized ramekins and about 1 hour and 20 minutes if you're using 1 large loaf pan. Remove the foil and leave the custard in the water bath until cooled completely. Remove from water bath, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and chill overnight or up to 4 days.
- To unmold, slide a paring knife around the edges of the pan. Invert a serving platter on top of the pan and turn pan and platter over. When flan is released, remove loaf pan or ramekins. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the residual caramel onto the flan, garnish with mint if desired and serve.