Growing up in our home, leche flan screamed â€œChristmas is nearâ€!!! My mom didnâ€™t bake much so if she was futzing around with the oven it almost always meant she was making leche flan. There is something about the critical mass of food and high calorie consumption during the Christmas season that means our intake of egg yolks and egg whites quintuples for a period of about two weeksâ€¦ I always thought leche flan was completely over the top on the sweetness scale and it is the food I most associate with my favorite Visayan word that describes food â€“ â€œngilngigâ€ which translates to something like â€œtoo rich,â€ a â€œtooth tingler,â€ â€œtoo sweetâ€ or something along those lines. I understand that you have to grow up with the â€œngâ€ sound and if you donâ€™t get it early you canâ€™t say that word properlyâ€¦try it on a Norwegian friend for exampleâ€¦heehee.
At any rate, leche flan was NOT a particular favorite of mine and it is only in the last few years that I have really appreciated a good leche flan. As with all things popular, there are a thousand and one variations on this classic that only used eggs/yolks, sugar, milk and some citrus flavoring. Amazing how so many variations or quality levels can emerge as a result of the ingredients used and the technique applied. Before I give you the recipe that I use, let me describe the perfect flan for Marketman. It must be medium to dark caramelized sugar meaning less sweet to the palate though the same amount of sugar as a blonder version. The texture of the flan must be incredibly smooth and possess minimal bubble-lization. It must be light yet dense all at the same time. It must come across as eating something sinful.
In the run-up to the holidays this year, I tried several different recipes for leche flan. I returned thrice to Gene Gonzalezâ€™s version in his book Cocina Sulipena and that is the recipe that I describe here, with just a few alterations. First make the caramelized sugar by dissolving 1.5 cups of sugar over medium heat until it is bubbling and turns a nice medium brown. If you have never done this before, here are some tips. Some folks add a little water to easy along the process. Use a nice clean (no traces of oil) stainless steel pan (a non-stick pan will not work as the sugar tends to seize up again and wonâ€™t melt easily). Be patient. Do not stir at all. Just swirl the pan gently once some color begins to appear. Watch carefully as you can go from blond to burned in seconds.
Do not be afraid to experiment, sugar is relatively cheap, until you get the â€œrightâ€ color. Remember, pale means sweeter and too dark means bitter. Always use oven mitts when handling the hot sugar, it is in fact hotter that flames as it can stick to your skin and singe it. I repeat the warning, hot caramelized sugar can be dangerous. Once you have achieved the desired color, pour into leche flan pans and swirl to coat the bottom and up part of the sides of the pan. For some reason, leche flan pans are made of these cheap lightweight aluminum and they work wellâ€¦no fancy versions from Sur La Table required. I buy mine in bulk in Divisoria for PHP6 (PHP9 at Shoemart grocery in Makati) so that when I give leche flan away they can take the pan and allâ€¦ Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
Next, prepare the flan. In a mixing bowl place 15 large egg yolks (whites carefully separated), 1 large egg, 1 and Â½ cups granulated white sugar (I sometimes used caster sugar) zest of one nice lemon, not those grotty ones with serious acne (use microplane for superior quality of zest) and 3 cups of fresh carabao milk. Mix thoroughly but gently so as not to agitate the mixture too much and add bubbles that will get stuck in suspended animation in your cooked flan. Some people strain this mixture but I donâ€™t bother. Place in pans with caramelized sugar. The carabao milk really does make a difference and it is much more readily available now with vendors at weekend markets carrying bottled carabaoâ€™s milk. If you use cow milk, the texture will be the same, the final product lighter and still delicious, but the carabaoâ€™s milk version is memorable.
Next, place pans in a larger pan with water that comes up about halfway up the flan and cover. Take pains to ensure that steam on the top of the pan does not fall into the flan. I use a large fish poacher for this step but you can use any old pan without holes, add water and put a foil tent on top of it. Bake in the oven for about 40-45 minutes until just set. Remover from the oven and the hot water and let cool. Once cool, run a sharp knife around the edges and carefully turn it over onto a serving platterâ€¦voila! Easy, delicious, festive! Some like to serve this cold (out of the fridge), I like it at room temperature.
I have made leche flan more times in the past two months than in my entire life. I tried organic eggs or grocery versions. I tried cow and carabao milk, I tried caster and regular sugar. I tried whisks, spatulas, straining, dayap, lemon, etc. Bottom lineâ€¦ my perfect leche flan uses the most expensive organic eggs you can find with the most intense yellow yolks. Definitely carabaoâ€™s milk, lemon over dayap for smoothness and none of the jarring effect of green bits in a yellowy/caramelly confection and either sugars do well. I do use a whisk to mix it but very gently to avoid the bubbles. And I do like the leche flan dark and almost slightly bitterâ€¦ This post is dedicated to my mom who is long gone but who would certainly have leche flan on her top ten list of foods to have around the holidays…I like to believe we are allowed to continue eating our top ten despite our hopefully cloudy new sorroundings in the after life… Merry Christmas Mom!