BY ALEJANDRA BORBOLLA
I hardly ever give you any Mexican dessert recipes, right? There is a huge story behind sugar cane plantations, and the topic is quite controversial among agricultural producers around the country. This is one crop that was not born in Mexico, but it was embraced and made what it is now by our people.
Sugarcane was brought to Mexico by Spanish settlers. Many major plantations were established, spreading from here to the Caribbean and Brazil. Mexico’s indigenous population provided a resident labor force, augmented by the introduction of some slaves from Africa. This is how the afro Mexican race was born. Before 1810, there were more people of African descent in Mexico than Spanish!
The large colonial sugar haciendas in Mexico were huge and beautiful and had a large influence over politics and local economies. Sugarcane remained an important crop following the Mexican Revolution (1910 onwards) which led to rural revolt and much stricter controls on the size of land holdings. Sugarcane was grown on 150,000 farms, making their average size small, under 4.5 hectares (11 acres) each. This is partly a consequence of the Mexican Revolution which limited maximum farm size. About half of all sugarcane production units are 2 hectares or less in area. The small average size of sugarcane farms places severe restrictions on possible investments and effectively prevents any economies of scale.
Sugar is one of the main ingredients in flan, which is gluten-free!! It is also a Mexican dessert that was nationalized from a Spanish dessert. It can be found from the smallest eateries and street food joints to high-end restaurants and resorts. It is a crowd-pleaser, and no matter how you pronounce it, it has a way of hitting a special sweet spot after a delicious meal.
Flan has a story as old as time, starting from the roman empire! Could you imagine? It was during Roman times that domesticated chickens were first kept for laying eggs. The Romans, with eggs in surplus, and consulting the Greek knowledge of the art of cooking, developed new recipes, one of which turned out to be a custardy concoction known as flan. It was originally a savory dish (not sweet, but aromatic and pleasing to the palate).
The Roman Empire was destined to fall and, on its ruins, arose medieval society. Yet the transition between ancient times and medieval, though often violent, was somewhat contiguous. Flan survived barbarian invasions (and perhaps pacified a barbarian or two). It surfaced as a generally sweet dish but was still based on the old idea of mixing creme and eggs to form a custard. Then, the French made their own version which was taken to Spain and then shipped to our paradisiac land some couple of hundred years later. Our word for flan actually is derived from the Latin, “flado” (meaning flat cake), which became “flaon” in Old French.
Interestingly, flan found two different outlets. In Spain, it became a sweet custard generally made with caramelized sugar. The mixture of milk, eggs and sugar was cooked slowly in crocks and relished by many. Besides the Roman influence, the Moors introduced citrus and almonds which are commonly found to flavor flan. Once Christopher Columbus found America, the rush to the riches of the region brought the richness of flan with it. Nearly all Central and South America loves flan in its various custardy forms. It has become especially associated with Mexico where flan is exquisitely produced in the kitchens of rich and poor alike.
The base of this dessert is eggs and milk, and it is cooked with a double boiler until it becomes silky smooth, light and fluffy. The flavor of flan is subtle, topped off with a light caramel that makes the taste buds in your mouth sing.
A few pro tips before we jump to it:
THIS IS NOT A HARD DESSERT no matter how many Mexican abuelitas try to scare you off. Try it, be patient and follow your instinct.
It’s easier to make a flan in a bigger mold than in several small ones. There is a special mold sold at most supermarkets that makes things a lot easier, too.
This recipe calls for vanilla and I strongly suggest you use the real kind. No cheap nonsense.
Since flan is first baked and then refrigerated to be served cold, this recipe will take about five hours overall, but only 10 minutes to prepare.
1 cup white sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 (14 ounce) can of sweetened condensed milk
3 whole eggs
3 extra egg yolks
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (optional. I like it better without OJ)
1 tablespoon grated orange peel (optional)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream
• Place sugar in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, and cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar melts and turns a golden amber color, about 10 minutes. Watch carefully once syrup begins to change color, because it burns easily. Carefully pour the melted sugar syrup into a flan mold. Let cool.
• Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
• Pour whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, eggs, egg yolks, orange juice, orange peel, vanilla extract, and cornstarch into a blender, and blend for a minute or so, until the mixture is smooth. Pour in the cream, and pulse several times to incorporate the cream.
• Pour the mixture over the cooled caramel syrup into the flan mold. I would use a strainer just to make sure its smooth.
• Line a roasting pan with a damp kitchen towel. Place the flan mold on the towel, inside the roasting pan, and place the roasting pan on oven rack. Fill the roasting pan with boiling water to reach halfway up the sides of the baking dish. The towel will not burn as it is surrounded by water.
• Bake in the preheated oven until the center of the flan is set but still slightly jiggly when moved, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let the flan cool, then refrigerate for at least 4 hours. To serve, run a sharp paring knife around the inside of the mold to release the flan.
• Invert a plate on the mold, flip the mold over, and gently remove the mold to unmold the flan and reveal the syrupy caramel topping.
And, that’s it!! Many Mexican abuelitas have their own flan recipe and can be quite selfish and not want to share, but with a few tries and experiments, you can make your own recipe, too! Also, this recipe can be made into one big flan or a bunch of small ones if you want. You just need the correct pans!
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