Thursday, January 03, 2008

Gunning For the Perfect Flan

Making leche flan was a skill I picked up over two decades ago in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the potluck was common practice. My sister gave me a round aluminum pan (cost $0.70 in Chinatown), some instructions and let me loose. Years later, having done with the chores of another marriage, I threw the pan away, declaring ala-Scarlet O’Hara, “as God is my witness, I will never make flan again!”

I’d learned how to make leche flan out of guilt, recalling how, while under military detention, Princess Nemenzo had jabbed a forefinger in my direction and told Roz Galang (RIP): “That woman doesn’t know anything about women’s craft.” We were surrounded by women knitting, crocheting, sewing, etc., and there I was, smoking my lungs away.

New York being a place where dining out is de rigueur, I had no occasion to make leche flan for the next forever. But since inflation never stops, in due time, parties in New York started getting pot lucked as well, and the leche flan made its comeback in the universe of my mind. I was tired of bringing the wine.

I found a rectangular aluminum pan and a recipe from a Reynaldo Alejandro cookbook, and proceeded in the attempt to wow some dinner guests. The recipe said to add water to the sugar to caramelize it. That didn’t sound right. But he had the repute for cookery. The sugar refused to turn brown. The flan was very pale. Ana Liza Caballes, who had created a three-mushroom soup and baked salmon, was highly critical. “You made a Caucasian flan,” she said. I ignored her. She threatened to give me a list of must-have basic spices for my “museum kitchen” but I developed instant tinnitus.

Each year, I join journalist friends at a Christmas dinner, hosted by Cielo Buenaventura and Nick Fox, usually bringing store-bought ice cream (ube and macapuno). This time, in addition to ice cream, I volunteered to make flan. I am prone to self-destruction. I thought I could use a really big rectangular aluminum foil pan. Bad karma – which translated itself to the disappearance of ube ice cream from grocery stores. In desperation, I pawed at cans deep inside the upright freezer, sending cans crashing out to roll down the aisle. Two Chinese men had to chase them down and bring them back. I found one can of ube ice cream tucked in a corner of the freezer’s cavernous interior. Ube ice cream and flan -- perfect!

I couldn’t invert the flan, as the recipe demanded. It looked very fragile, with tiny cracks like old marble. We scooped it up and buried it under ice cream. Lina Mappala, who makes the perfect pansit Malabon in the whole of Queens, NY, said, on the way home, “the flavor was fine; the consistency was good. It was only its firmness. It was very delicate, that’s why there were cracks.” I snapped back: “It was your husband’s fault; I told him to drive carefully.” Lina delivered the ultimate condemnation: “The pan was too big.”

Appalling, I tell you. Who said a flan had to be inverted anyway? Who said it had to be brown at the top? And why do Filipinos like flan? Why couldn’t they like fortune cookies?

Peace, the guru sitting in the middle of my head chakra said; be at peace; life is a lost cause; no one escapes from it alive.

But the political commissar who stands behind the guru thrust her face forward and said, we must subject this to dialectical analysis.


Consider the colors of the flan. At the very bottom is the caramelized sugar which stains the portion of the custard it contacts with a deep brown tan. As you know, race and class correlate in the Philippines. So this brown layer symbolizes the peasant and workers. Then you have the mixed races representing various segments of the petite bourgeoisie. At the very top is this thin pale layer, indicating the white relics of colonialism who now conspire with imperialism to oppress the rest of society.

Good lord!

So, when you invert the flan unto a plate, what happens to this arrangement?

The brown comes to the top!

Exactly. That is the revolutionary process.

Anything for the revolution.

So I was off to the Latino part of my neighborhood in search of the perfect mold. Oich veh! I found one, quite elaborate, costing a minor fortune. Feeling better, I hiked to the grocery to look for dip. Humus, I said to the grocery man; you know, to sawsaw chips. He thought I was insane, looking for humus at a Latin grocery store.

At check out, the cashier said something in rapid Spanish and I went “Sorry?” Then, these hands snaked forward from behind me and pushed my merchandise toward the cashier. It was the man next in line.

Young man: “she said the machine isn’t working so you have to bring the items near her.” Oh, thank you. “Happy new year.” “To you, too, or at least a better one than this terrible old year.” “Old is not terrible. Can I help you with the bag?” “Oh, no, I couldn’t impose…” I could, I could… “Perhaps just to the corner…” “You’re having a party?” “I’m making flan!” “I love flan. Can I come to the party?” Temptation.

The commissar steps forward and brays: HINDE! (No!)

So I make flan in solitude. Caramelize the sugar (no water); separate the egg yolks (only organic), beat them lightly; mix evap milk, condensed milk, orange and vanilla extracts and add a pinch of saffron which costs half my monthly surplus value, place the filled mold into another pan with an inch of water, bake at 325 degrees. And wait. And wait. And wait – through three episodes of the TV show Battlestar Galactica. It won’t solidify! Wrong mold! I tore hair off my scalp. At 4 a.m., it finally settled down to a golden gelatinous solidity. Place it in the fridge.

The next day, having barely wiped sleep off my face, I placed a plate carefully over the mold, held plate firmly, slipped a hand under the mold and inverted the flan.


Vive la revolucion!


barbara jane said...

Hi Ninotchka, I love this story! Thanks for sharing. You know, I struggle as a Pinay with what is women's work, and whether we are degraded by it, whether we should chuck it aside for "bigger" and more "ambitious" things like being academics, authors, etc. But I have found that in taking on my mother's and grandmother's food traditions for big family gatherings, I actually feel pretty empowered, and think about ways in which to elevate "women's work." It all still confuses me.

Anyway, congratulations on a perfect flan. My mother taught me how to make a flan a couple of years ago, and I've since amended her recipe by making mine into Mexican chocolate flan. So yummy!

Happy New Year to you!

All Best
Barbara Jane Reyes

Ninotchka Rosca said...

Happy new year as well. I envy you your tradition. My mother couldn't cook and all I remember of my grandmother was that she told me once that the best way to off a husband was to grind some glass in a mortar and pestle and mix it with his flan. Thanks for the nice words. I will try mixing chocolate with the flan mix. Have you tried lining the caramel with blueberries?

Jack said...

Ninotchka--didn't you make flan at Thanksgiving? That was great--and a full month before your Christmas troubles.
Love Jack

Ninotchka Rosca said...


This was last year's misadventures. It took a whole year to perfect the revolutionary flan process.


stuart-santiago said...

bake? hindi ba ban(y)o maria ang leche flan, meaning steamed? at least that was my lola's and my nanay's way. 45 minutes tops. and yes, absolutely no water to caramelize sugar. happy new year. i look forward to your rare blogs.

Ninotchka Rosca said...

yes, banyo-maria -- which can also be done in the oven, by placing the mold in a larger pan with an inch of water, in effect bake-steaming it. i wonder where the term banyo-maria came from; it's Spanish, meaning Maria's bath. some hot spring in Europe, perhaps?

stuart-santiago said...

ay oo nga. we use a steamer kasi. sorry, low tech. and yes the term banyo-maria is intriguing. i remember as a child asking my lola why maria, expecting some alamat-like story, but she laughed me off.

barbara jane said...

BaƱo Maria, so that's what it's called. The first time I did this, I almost freaked out, and my sister had to assure me by telling me this is how you make a cheesecake, that it wasn't as complicated as it sounded.

Anyway, the blueberries I haven't tried, but that sounds like it could be interesting. My sister has also made a pumpkin flan for Thanksgiving, and that is neat.

I know there are collections of Filipino food fiction; Cecilia Brainard recently edited a collection of recipe and fiction (though I've been told that some of the recipes seem too distantly linked to the stories themselves). I think though, a straight up food essay and recipe anthology would be very cool.

Alpie said...

I am reminded of the Philippines , ofhome when I hear leche plan. In our family making leche plan is always a competition.

My Auntie Pacing always wins. She gave her daughters the inheritance-the recipe on how to make the best leche plan and ube.

Me, I learned how to make ube in the countryside. Tired from making patupat and linupak, in 1979 a woman comrade taught us how to make ube from ube(yam) mixed with caramelized condensed milk.

Well, a good subtitute for a leche plan is caramel made out of condensed milk.

Reading Notch work makes my mouth water. How i wish i can still eat the sweet leche plan....

It's the best Filipina work of love!

Al P.Garcia

stuart-santiago said...

about food essays and recipe anthology, this sosyal one came out in 2005. "slow food - philippine culinary traditions" (2005 anvil) edited by erlinda enriquez panlilio and felice prudente sta. maria, dedicated to doreen g. fernandez.

gilda cordero fernando's back-cover rave reads: "a delicious serving of nostalgic and informative pieces mostly from known gourmets and gourmands. the book gives the background behind slow-cooking family recipes and traces stomach links between grandmas, moms and pops and their cooking daughters and sons. a winner!"

i was prepared to enjoy it and learn from it except that the weirdest thing is, the first two or three recipes that called for kakang gata instructs you to add water to the grated coconut and squeeze. big mistake. i'm from quezon so i know that kakang gata is pure cream, the first creamy squeezes from freshly grated coconut, no water added. only after do you add water and squeeze some more but that's not kakang gata anymore, that's more like milk na lang. the fourth or fifth recipe got it right though.

i suppose it's also about sons and daughters improving on traditional recipes, like your yummy sounding mexican chocolate flan, but i haven't picked up the book since. well, maybe i will soon, now that i've vented.

Anonymous said...

I love leche flan and your social analysis of the process. It reminds me of my childhood in the Philippines during fiesta in my mom's hometown in Bulacan. My aunt Nena always saves me a whole llanera of flan. But instead of cooking it in an oval flan mold, they just use emptied tin can from the powder milk. But I never learned how to make it. I never perfected anything I cook since I married Willy. He is a better cook so I handed him the pots and pans. Either I have liberated myself from that chore or just got lazy (tamad na burgis). My sister-in-law in Hawaii taught me how to make a custard cake. Just use the leche flan recipe for the bottom (including the caramelized sugar) and the white cake mix for the top. Add a global analogy to that. Just the same, cook it in a water bath in the oven.
Happy New Year. I would love to taste the NR's leche flan.


Ninotchka Rosca said...

Just got a note from Indai who said I was the only person she knew who could make preparing leche flan seem like overthrowing a government. Yeah, and it took me a protracted year to perfect the process.

Apologies; couldn't resist; kind of in-house joke among Filipino activists.

melponder said...

Hi Ninotchka, It's been a very long time. I am still in the Seattle area, same place, two more kids (now 8 and 6) and the older twins started college-one in WA state the other in HI. I have been 'cleaning' my home office, garage, etc. and have years and years of stuff, including some old GABNet stuff. Anybody in Seattle who might want them? Hope you are well.

Ninotchka Rosca said...

Hi Melinda:

Sorry for the public response but this blogger site won't give me your email address. we're building an archive and library of GABNet materials. actually, i will be in Seattle Jan. 21-23. please send me your contact info; it won't be published.

julie anne said...

Good day Ninotchka! I am a junior college student from your homeland. Guess what, I am using your article published in Inquirer (that 'Ninotchka Rosca writes to Nicole) for my lesson plan to be demonstrated next week. 90% of our university's population is women, so I guess it is just right to arouse, organize and mobilize them by exposing them to such kind of writings (they are 'academicians', hehe, we are still on that stage to make them join mobilizations). I admire you so much and you are one of those people who makes me soo inspired to continue the struggle.

Kudos to your 'Flan'! I love the last part!!!

The women united will never be defeated!

Revolution is coming. Padayon!



Ninotchka Rosca said...

dear lorena:

thanks. tell me how your lesson plan demonstration goes; and what the reaction is.

Anonymous said...

So much politics on your blog yet the one entry that got the most comments was the one about flan.

Ninotchka Rosca said...

But I am intrigued that here we are in November and someone's still reading the January entry! I am flattered.

Dazy said...

I've always wanted to make flan. But the whole caramel making process gives me the creeps! I tried once, and it failed. May be I should give it a try once again bcoz this sounds amazing!