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!