Over at Chef It Yourself, the lovely Anamaris has started a monthly Top Chef It Yourself challenge, and I decided to be a part of it; I love a good challenge, and look forward to doing more of these in the future.
This being the first challenge, it was really a “get to know you” experience–the only request for the dish to be made and blogged was that it had to be about me and my cooking style; something that brings back childhood memories, or something that gets pulled out for special occasions–perhaps, something that I’m famous for in my circle of friends. Growing up in Southern California with a Mexican stepfather and eventually marrying into an Ecuadorian family has left a definite imprint on my cooking style. Many meals in our home reflect the Latin influences in our lives; rice is ever-present, holiday breakfasts mean tostones and panela on the table, and when it’s time to make desserts for a special dinner, that’s when I roll out the flans.
I did a stint at Border Grill not too long after I graduated from Cordon Bleu, and spent my time there as a pastry cook making flans on a near-daily basis. You know, after making flans after a few months, you get pretty good at it, especially when it’s expected for you to also make not only their signature vanilla flan, but to also make a weekly special flan of another flavor. One of my successful flavors was this Chocolate Kahlua concoction (lest you think all were successful, the Mango one was an absolute disaster); a few ounces of chocolate and a bit of Kahlua turns what’s a simple creamy dessert into something remarkably decadent.
One of the key components of a flan is the caramel. Don’t be afraid to let that caramel get dark, too–it’s that burnt sugar flavor that adds complexity and depth to the custard. When preparing the caramel, I’ve found doing it in a skillet is easier and faster, rather than a saucepan, and start with a little water in the skillet, before adding the sugar. I put in about 3-4 tablespoons worth of water, just enough to create a “wet sand” look once you’ve added the sugar. Never stir the caramel, as that can cause crystalization, and rather having that smooth, glassy looking caramel, it’ll be a grainy mess–just slowly swirl the pan if the caramelization is happening unevenly (and it usually does–there will be a hot spot or two in the pan where the sugar darkens faster than the rest). Once the sugar is a dark caramel brown, pour quickly and carefully into the cake pan. I’m serious when I say to be careful. This stuff is over 300° and unlike, say, boiling water, it’s sticky. There’s a reason why pastry chefs have called caramel “napalm”. I’ve come away with blistered fingers working with the stuff. If you’re clumsy and new to caramel, keep a bowl of cold water close by if you get any on your fingers.
Yes, I know, I need to replace my oven light.
When it comes to baking flans, it is absolutely necessary to do it in a water bath. I know it’s an extra step, but the water bath buffers the custard from direct heat so the proteins in the milk and eggs coagulate slowly, creating that smooth texture–too fast and the proteins seize and the end result is rubbery, overcooked flan that tastes and feels more like sweetened scrambled egg. All you need is a baking pan just a bit bigger than the cake pan, and fill with hot tap water (no need to boil it or do anything special) until the water reaches about 1″ to 1 1/2″ up the cake pan. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that you need to be careful when you slide your pan in the oven after adding the water–having water splash into the flan kind of sucks.
Flans are best done a day or two in advance, as they need a minimum of 6 hours in the refrigerator to set. I think that’s one of my reasons why I like serving them at get-togethers, as all I need to do is take it out and turn it over onto a plate.
It would be silly for me to say this goes incredibly well with a cup of coffee, wouldn’t it?
Chocolate Kahlua Flan
1 cup sugar
4 ounces dark chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 cups whole milk
1- 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup Kahlua
- Preheat oven to 325°.
- In a small skillet, add a few tablespoons of water, and the 1 cup of sugar. On medium-high heat, simmer sugar to a dark caramel brown and pour quickly into a clean 9″ round metal cake pan (2″ depth or deeper). Set aside to cool.
- Break up dark chocolate into small pieces and place into small bowl with heavy cream. Heat in microwave in 20 second increments, stirring each time, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk eggs until smooth, then add milk, condensed milk, and Kahlua; whisk until incorporated. Add chocolate and whisk until smooth again. Strain custard base with a fine-mesh sieve to catch any possible lumps.
- Pour custard into prepared cake pan and place in larger baking pan for a water bath. Pour hot tap water to reach at least 1″ high on cake pan, and place into oven.
- Bake for about 1 hour 10 minutes. To check doneness, give the pan a small wiggle; a flan that is set will jiggle slightly like jello.
- When done, pull flan from oven and let cool in water bath until cool to the touch. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 6 hours, and up to 48.
- To serve, run a small knife along the edge of the flan to release. Turn out onto a plate with a curved edge to hold the caramel. Serves 8-10.