To follow the Pastel de Medianoche I posted last week, I give you Tocino de Cielo, with its short but magical ingredient list of egg yolks, sugar, water, vanilla and lemon juice. According to The Heritage of Spanish Cooking, Tocino de Cielo was one of many desserts made with egg yolks leftover from the process of making sherry, which uses egg whites for clarifying the fortified wine. In Jerez, the region of Spain famous for its sherry, the egg yolks were donated to the local convents, where the sisters used them to make a selection of sweet specialties.
What’s nice about Tocino de Cielo, a type of flan, is that it’s free of milk or cream; for those of you whose stomachs don’t digest dairy well, this version is perfect. That being said, I offer one small piece of advice when making this dessert. For me, custards without dairy can be tricky to get to a buttery smooth texture. If you succeed easily at this, then the spirits of the nuns must be with you. If not, creative re-purposing is the “mother superior” for all wayward custards in my kitchen. With a good blender, any imperfect flan can be born anew as creme brûlée. In either state, one can hardly ever get too much of creamy eggs yolks and sugar.
Tocino de Cielo (Bacon from Heaven)
(recipe adapted from Cocino Al Minuto by Nitza Villapol & Martha Martinez and The Heritage of Spanish Cooking by Alicia Rios & Lourdes March)
For the syrup:
1-2/3 cups water
1-3/4 cups refined white sugar
6 drops lemon juice
For the caramel:
1/2 cup refined white sugar
For the custard:
11 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8-inch round cake pan
Heavy-duty medium saucepan
A high-temperature resistant spatula
A large roasting pan or casserole dish
A digital thermometer
(Note: Although I prefer to use a less refined organic sugar on a regular basis for other recipes, in this recipe I use a refined white sugar because I find it is the easiest and most reliable sugar to use for caramelizing. To keep things simple, I used it for the rest of the recipe as well. Use extreme caution when caramelizing the sugar as it is very hot and can cause severe burns).
In a medium heavy saucepan, combine 1-3/4 cups of the sugar with the 1-2/3 cups water. Squeeze about six drops of lemon juice from half a cut lemon into the sugar and water mixture. Turn heat to medium, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, cook the syrup another ten minutes at a low simmer, or until it reaches about 220ºF on a digital thermometer. Remove from the heat and transfer to a heat-proof bowl and cool completely.
Once the saucepan is cool, rinse and dry it well. Have the cake pan ready to pour the caramelized sugar into as it will harden quickly, and put a pad to protect the countertop underneath the cake pan as the pan will get very hot when the melted sugar is poured into it. To caramelize the sugar, pour the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar evenly over the bottom of the saucepan. Turn the heat to medium high, and heat the sugar until it begins to melt. Do not stir, but move any sugar that begins to melt towards the center away from the edges so it doesn’t burn. The sugar will begin to deepen to a light golden color as it melts.
Once the sugar is nearly melted, stir to incorporate any unmelted bits. At this point, the sugar will begin to smoke a bit, and the color will continue to deepen to a deeper amber. Stir continously, and watch closely, as the sugar can overcook and burn in a matter of several seconds. Once the sugar begins to foam, remove immediately from the heat, continuing to stir, and pour into the cake pan, quickly scraping any residue into the cake pan. The color of the caramel will be a deep reddish brown. Place the hot saucepan aside to cool on the stove.
Working quickly, hold the edges of the cakepan, lifting and turning it to spread the caramel around the bottom and sides of the cakepan, using paper towels or hot pads to hold the edges of the pan if it becomes too warm to hold. Swirl the caramel in this way until the bottom and sides are well-coated and it begins to thicken. Set aside and let cool until completely hardened. Handle gently once cooled as the hardened caramel can crack easily.
Separate the egg yolks from the whites, and put the egg yolks and whole egg in another medium bowl. Refrigerate the leftover egg whites for another use. Add vanilla to the egg yolks and whole egg in the medium bowl. Stir to combine. Once the sugar syrup has cooled completely, stir it into the egg yolk mixture.
Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Pour the egg/syrup mixture into the caramel-coated cake pan. Set the filled cakepan down into a large casserole dish that is big enough to allow two or three inches empty space around the cake pan. Put the casserole dish in the oven, and pour enough hot water into the casserole dish to come up about 2/3 of the way of the outside of the cake pan. Bake the egg mixture for about 90 minutes until set, and a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean when inserted.
Carefully remove the cakepan from the casserole dish in the oven, and let cool for several minutes on a hot pad or cooling rack. Place in the refrigerator and let cool overnight. When ready to serve, remove from the refrigerator, and run a knife around the inside edge of the cake pan to loosen the custard. Place a plate that is larger than the cake pan face down over the top of the cake pan, and holding the plate and the pan together, quickly invert the plate so the cake pan is now sitting on top of the plate. Tap the bottom of the cake pan with the thick end of a dinner knife to loosen the custard until it releases onto the plate. The caramelized sugar will be more liquid, coating the top of the custard and pooling around the bottom of the custard. Cut into wedges and serve.
Serves 6 to 8 people