Friday, November 4, 2011

Basque Flan

Flan is such a treat!  If you're unfamiliar with flan, you must try this.  It's simply custard with caramel in the bottom of the baking dish. It's smooth, cool, sweet, and beautiful.

Now, I've had some bad flan. Let me tell you. There is one very popular Mexican eatery in Downtown Reno that I just don't like. Their flan is very firm, not very sweet, and tastes almost cheesy. Yuck.

And then there are times you get flan that is so good, so amazing that it's like your mouth has found paradise. There is one particular person from the church back in my hometown that made pans and pans of amazing flan for church functions.  Amazing isn't even descriptive enough as a word.

A lot of the flavor has to do with the caramel.  If your caramel is very dark, your flan will take on a toasty flavor with a bitter nutty, coffee-like aftertaste. I like my caramel a bit lighter, so there are hints of that toastiness, but it's not so noticeable. Those flavors will mellow and permeate the custard layer if you let it rest in the fridge a day or so before eating.

The pan you use for caramelization has a huge impact on how your caramel cooks.  I prefer a lightweight (cheap) teflon-lined saucepan. When it's off the heat, it promptly stops cooking. I don't like using my heavy-bottomed stainless pans. They hold the heat too well so when I get that just-right caramel color, it stays hot and makes it too dark. Boo. Yes, I have ruined caramel this way and had to toss it and start over.

This particular recipe came from one of my dad's former employees that was a cherished Basque family recipe. My mom had the recipe card stuffed into her bag of tricks, so on our last trip to visit I asked her to find it for me. Thank you Larry for passing this on. It's truly a gem!

2 cups sugar, white, granulated, divided
1 quart whole milk
6 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Place 1 cup of sugar in a 2-Quart saucepan and gently caramelize until golden brown. I like to do this over low heat. It's very important that you DO NOT STIR the sugar as it melts. It's OK to tilt the pan a tiny bit to swirl the sugar into to caramel. Just watch that you don't let it burn.  Depending on your pan and your skill at melting sugar this will take about 20 minutes.

 Let me just say, melting sugar directly over heat is very different from when you make caramel with cream or water. It will not boil. It will simply melt and turn brown. It is very easy to burn it this way. Stirring will make this seize up. DON'T STIR! Tilt, swirl, and wiggle the pan instead.

2. Immediately pour this into the bottom of a 2-Qt. baking dish (Pyrex or Corning Ware are really good for this). The caramel should harden in the dish as it cools. This is normal. It doesn't have to be spread perfectly over the bottom of the dish. I do recommend that your dish is a bit warmed for this step so it doesn't accidentally crack.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs until thick and lemon colored. Add the other 1 cup of sugar and blend well. Beat the milk into the egg-sugar mixture. Stir in the salt and vanilla.

4. Pour the egg mixture through a fine sieve or chinois to make sure that it's really smooth.  Now pour the strained mixture into the prepared baking dish.

5.  You will also need another pan the the baking dish will fit in. Pour hot water into the outer pan so it comes up about 3/4 of the way. This is known as a Bain-Marie and it helps make sure the custard doesn't burn and it adds moisture to the oven. I like to place the flan pan into the empty 9x13 pan on the oven rack and then pour boiling water into the outer dish.  Be careful if you do it this way so you don't pour boiling water into the flan.

Using a water bath also helps the custard set up so it's smooth and not grainy or curdle-like in texture. Trust me, grainy flan is bad stuff. Don't skip the water bath.

6. Place the pans into a 350F oven and cook for about 1 hour and a half  for a 9"x13" pan (at high altitude, of course). Low altitude chefs, your flan may only take an hour.  You should be able to insert a toothpick or knife into the center and have it come out clean. It will be still be wiggly-jiggly if you shake the pan, so be sure to use the knife to check if it's done.

7. Remove the flan pan from the water bath and let cool. Be sure to keep it in the fridge if you aren't going to devour it right away.  Also, the flan is fairly delicate, and overnight refrigeration helps it firm up a little so it's easier to serve.

Look here, see the layers? The caramel has absorbed moisture from the custard and turned into a syrup. There are tiny bubbles in the custard.

8. To serve, either scoop out a serving with a good-sized metal turner, or you can tip out the whole thing onto a serving platter or cake stand (with sides). Part of the beauty of flan is seeing the caramel syrup puddling around the custard. You can serve this with the caramel syrup alone, or add a dollop of sweet whipped cream.

Just a note, you can make this in individual ramekins. I just haven't had a chance to try it out and get the timing down.  My ramekins hold about a cup (8 ounces). According to other recipes I've seen, low altitude bakers would aim for 15-20 minutes for that size. I'd say aim for 20-25 minutes and be sure to test for doneness with a knife.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Jenny's Caesar Salad

Here is a recipe with some history I can relate to. Back in the 1920's this dish was created at Caesar Cardini's restaurant after he was running low on food. Someone there started throwing things together and made a tasty salad.

I can totally relate to this, and I know I'm not the only one. Sometimes you go home and look in the fridge. Then you look in the pantry. Then you look in the freezer. Finally, you think "Damn. I have all kinds of weird things that don't go together!"

So kudos to Mr Cardini and his staff for this. It's a fine example that sometimes you just start tossing things together and see what happens.

Thinking back, I believe the first time I ate a Caesar salad I was a "tween", probably 11 or 12. I recall eating at a place in Carson City that has long since closed down. Mom and Dad ate something normal, probably grilled chicken sandwiches. They looked at me funny for ordering a Caesar salad, like "no way will she like that." But I loved it!

Sometime in high school I came across the basis for my recipe. Of course, my parents weren't huge fans of the dressing. It was too potent a few times, accidentally searing our tastebuds with way too much garlic. That didn't stop me from making it over and over. Ages later, I met my dear hubby who loves garlic way more than normal people and wants it made with 3 cloves of garlic.

For my recipe below, it's pretty pungent and I only used one clove of garlic. If you are not a huge garlic fan, use less, say half a clove to start. Fresh is best. Don't use prechopped garlic in a jar. It loses it's flavor in a jar.

I like to tear up my lettuce into pieces that will fit on a fork and into my mouth. However, you can dress this up presentation-wise by keeping the leaves whole (wash and trim the really tough end stalk off first) and arrange them on the plate. You can go for heaped and wild, or neat and tidy with the lettuce stacked as it would look straight from the head. If you want to impress, go for the stacked look.

If you are grossed out by the anchovy, don't be. It's not fishy. It adds a salty, briny depth of flavor. If you really want to skip the anchovies for whatever reason, it will still taste good.

I used real Parmesan cheese from a cheese wedge. Look in the deli section for the good stuff, you know, Parmegianno-Reggiano. If you like the big curls, a cheese plane is perfect. If you like it fine, a microplane grater does the trick. Sorry, Kraft Parm in a shaker just isn't the same.

For the egg, I like to coddle the egg to kill off bad bacteria, just in case. If you aren't worried about raw eggs and food poisoning, well use the raw egg at your own risk. But ick. Pathogens. You know? Not that I'm a germophobe, but why risk making yourself sick?

Now, let me alert you to one thing. If you are used to Caesar dressing in a bottle, you will be blown away at how different this tastes. I think Caesar in a bottle is crap that tastes like feet, or worse. It doesn't even look the same.

One more thing, I like to mix up the dressing in a mixing bowl. You can make it in a blender, but it turns out really uniform. I like the texture of hand-mixing. Also, I don't want to get my blender all garlicky. Because that means extra scrubbing for me to get it out. But feel free to blend it up if you're not concerned.

OK? So are you ready for some salad? Try it. Let me know what you think.

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1 anchovy fillet
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 egg
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/3 cup olive oil
1 head romaine lettuce or 1 bag hearts of romaine
1/3 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
optional: fried onion strips, additional anchovy fillets, grilled fish, steak or chicken

1. If using fresh head lettuce, wash it, remove stalk and tear into smallish pieces. Spin dry in a salad spinner. I like to discard the thick stem ends. I prefer a head of lettuce because I like the flavor of the darker green leaves. The pale, stemmy pieces in the bag just don't taste as good, too bland, too much like iceberg lettuce.

2. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add one whole egg. Cook for 1 minute. Remove egg and let cool on the counter while you prepare the dressing.

3. Combine salt, pepper, and minced garlic in a mixing bowl. Use a wooden spoon to stir and mash up the garlic. When it's starting to break up, add the anchovy. Mash until the anchovy is completely mixed into a paste. Add mustard. Mix well.

4. Crack open the egg and separate the white from the yolk. The white should have some flecks of white where you can see that it was beginning to cook. Add the yolk to the mixing bowl. Discard the white.

5. Mix the yolk into the dressing paste. Now add the vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. Mix. Add the lemon juice. Mix until well blended.

6. Add the olive oil and mix up until it's a thick dressing.

7. Place dry lettuce in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle dressing over lettuce. Toss to coat lettuce evenly. Add thick shaved Parmesan, onion strips, croutons. Arrange two anchovy fillets on top before serving, if desired.

8. Serve immediately. This will serve 4 as a small salad or 2 as an entree salad. For an entree salad, leave off the anchovies and add sliced grilled chicken or steak, or a piece of grilled fish on top.