If there was one thing I was reminded of this week, it was this: I don’t have as much experience as I’d like as a cook. Because of this, I sometimes end up testing recipes much longer than a very experienced cook would, and I try things a seasoned chef wouldn’t bother with. What I lack in experience, though, I make up for in creativity, and in sheer determination to keep at it until I achieve what I had in mind. I love it when an idea works, and somehow in the long process of getting there, I wasn’t completely exhausted. I’m guessing it may have been the small doses of sugar I had from testing this recipe that kept me going.
Sugar is the theme here, but it’s balanced by a creamy full-fat coconut milk. To make the sesame caramel work, a pure white refined sugar is necessary, but to sweeten the flan custard, I used a combination of a deep, dark grade B maple syrup and a caramel-ly coconut-palm sugar. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that caramel is the theme here. This leads me to the next point, and the reason for the longer than normal recipe-testing process: getting the hang of caramelizing sugar. If you’re like me, you’ll probably need more than one attempt to get it right, unless you’re lucky, or you’ve watched someone else do this technique often. It definitely takes more than one try to get comfortable with caramelizing sugar properly, and since you are heating it to the point to almost before it burns, at a high temperature, it’s a good idea to educate yourself. David Lebovitz has ten tips and a very helpful tutorial on the matter, and Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes has a short instructional post too. If you’re not an experienced caramelizer, take time to read those posts, and you’ll at least be well-informed on your first attempt.
The other side of the story of the long process of recipe testing is what identifies a good flan; very creamy, very smooth and yet still solid enough to hold a form when unmolded. The importance of cooking the custard to just the right point, much like the caramel, is a deal-maker or a deal-breaker. For discriminating flan eaters, like my husband, it makes every bit of difference, as it will to you when you get it right. If you don’t judge the doneness quite right the first time around (undercooked and too soft, or overcooked and grainy), you could blend the unmolded cooked flan in a blender until smooth, pour it back into the ramekins, and treat it as a creme brulée. I have a batch waiting to be used just like this.
So that’s my story, and after this long week of recipe-testing, I’m glad to have gained a little more experience as a cook. And since it involved sugar, who’s complaining? Definitely not me-and I hope you won’t either when you eat this flan.
For the sesame caramel:
1/3 cup raw sesame seeds
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup refined white granulated sugar
an additional 1/4 cup water
For the flan:
One 13.5 ounce can of full-fat coconut milk (organic, if possible)
1/4 cup maple syrup, grade B
1/4 cup coconut-palm sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon of zest of lemon, about half of a large lemon
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
3 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
Helpful equipment to have:
electric coffee mill or spice grinder
1 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan for caramelizing the sugar
six ceramic ramekins
a large roasting pan or rectangular heat-proof casserole dish
Grind the raw sesame seeds in the electric coffee mill or spice grinder until they begin to form a loose paste. In a small bowl, combine the ground sesame seeds and 1/4 cup warm water. Whisk vigorously until you have a very liquid sesame paste. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, using a whisk to stir the paste in the sieve and help push the liquid through, into a cup with a pouring spout, such as a small glass pyrex measuring cup. Set near the stove where you will be caramelizing the sugar.
In a 1-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, mix the sugar and the additional 1/4 cup of water. Heat the sugar mixture over medium-low heat and stir until dissolved and beginning to boil, then stop stirring. Use a heat-proof spatula to incorporate any sugar clumps sticking to the sides of the pan, but avoid stirring at this point. Once the sugar begins to boil, turn the heat up a little more. The sugar will begin to foam; swirl the pan to help move it around, and continue to use the spatula to push any sugar that has crystallized on the sides into the melted sugar.
Gradually, as the water evaporates, the sugar will begin to deepen in color, from a light amber to a deeper amber. Once the sugar reaches a deeper amber color, carefully pour the sesame liquid into the saucepan. The sugar will foam up and give off a lot of steam, and perhaps re-crystalize a little. Stir well with a whisk until smooth again, and remove from the heat. The caramel should be a deep reddish-brown. Carefully pour a couple tablespoons of the caramel into each ramekin, and rotate the ramekin to coat the bottom and a little of the sides. Do one ramekin at a time before moving on to the next as the caramel hardens quickly and it’s critical to rotate it immediately after pouring. Let the caramel harden completely.
While the caramel hardens, preheat the oven to 325ºF. Stir the first six ingredients for the flan together until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk all the eggs and egg yolks together. In a medium saucepan, heat the flan mixture until simmering, then remove from the heat. Stir 1/4 cup of the flan mixture into the eggs to temper them, whisking constantly, then continue to add the rest of the mixture, a little bit at a time, until completely incorporated. Strain the mixture through a large sieve into a medium bowl with a pour spout. Divide the mixture evenly among the six ramekins.
Place the ramekins in the roasting pan or casserole dish, and fill the roasting pan with enough hot water to reach about halfway up the outside of the ramekins. Place roasting pan or casserole dish with ramekins carefully in the oven, and cook for about 45 to 50 minutes, until the custard is nearly set but still jiggles a little when shaken, and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let sit in the water bath until cool. Refrigerate for at least eight hours or overnight. This helps the custard set up completely.
To remove the flans from the ramekins, run a knife around the inside of the ramekin, and give it a little shake. Place over a small plate and let the flan drop onto the plate. Scoop any remaining caramel from the ramekin and pour it over the flan. Serve immediately.
Makes six individual 4-ounce flans