with just 2 days before thanksgiving, i had some errands to run first before i'd make my traditional annual flan. first a visit to star market to pick up a 10 lbs. frozen turkey for only $5. the catch i had to buy at least $10 worth of groceries, so i ended up grabbing 2 cases of flavored seltzer water (canada dry pomegranate cherry, schweppes black cherry). they didn't have any barq root beer (must have my root beer for thanksgiving) so after dropping off my groceries at home, i took out the bike and went to market basket for my special beverage.
returning home i went out one last time, to the dollar store where they had a sale on kleenex. i hadn't been there since i've been back and they've done some interior remodeling, rearranging the aisles and expanding their food department. it took a while a to explore and figure out where everything was. they didn't have the tissues i wanted but i ended up getting some other things (magnetic dry erase board which i'm going to return because it's not strong enough to stick to my fridge).
my amazon purchase arrived today: 64GB USB 3.0 flash drive, dymo manual embosser, and a digital infrared thermometer. i played around with the thermometer, measuring parts of the house checking for cold spots. unfortunately, today's was a warm day and all my walls were crevasses were 68°F. i'll have to try on a colder day.
it wasn't until 3:30 when i finally settled down to make the flan. in all honesty, i was probably procrastinating, because i needed to make a lot and i knew it'd take me a long time. this year i was using real vanilla beans again; the one other time was 10 years ago. the one thing i learned was i couldn't really taste the difference versus vanilla extract. vanilla beans also leave little black bits (vanilla seeds?) which can look unsightly (like the flan fell in some dirt). but since it's been 2 years since i made my flan, i wanted it to be special, and i wanted to use the best ingredients.
the thing with vanilla beans is they prefer a warm medium to infuse out the flavors. taking a cue from the last time i used real beans, i scraped out the paste from one bean and added it to 3 cups of warm milk simmering on the stove. as for how many beans to use, i estimated that maybe one inch of bean equals a teaspoon of vanilla extract, so that gave me an equivalent of 6-8 tsp of extract.
i was watching the news at the time and during the weather forecast they were saying something about the gorgeous sunset. i grabbed my camera and went outside and saw one of the craziest magenta-violet sunsets. i saw other people taking photos with their phones and a woman getting out of a car even asked, "did you get some good photos?"
the problem with warming up the milk means i couldn't add the eggs right away, otherwise they'd cook in the high temperature. so i waited for the milk to cool. a bit later i realized i could simply add the rest of the cold milk - 7 more cups - into the vanilla infused milk, thereby cooling it down. it gave me a chance to check the temperature with the infrared thermometer, which registered at an egg-safe 67°F. into the bowl i added the remaining ingredients: eggs, sugar, salt.
the key with mixing is to not create too much froth. bubbles in the mix will leave unsightly bubbles in the flan. 17 eggs took a while to beat until finally i had a nice consistent yellow flan mixture with sprinkles of black vanilla seeds (they look like peppers). i gave the mixture some 20 minutes to settle before continuing on to the next step.
i boiled some water for the water baths. basically a kettle of water per bath. i used a metal teapot for one, and the electric kettle for the other. i usually like the ramekins sitting in a hot bath before i pour in the caramel layer.
melting of the caramel and pouring it into each of the ramekins is the trickiest part of flan making. some ingredients use a sugar plus water mixture, but i make my caramel with only dry sugar melted to molten perfection.
i melt a cup at a time; one cup of sugar is enough to make caramel for 8 ramekins. i have a paper towel ready so i can wipe off the sticky caramel from the lip of the pan after i finish pouring. after i'm done adding caramel to all the ramekins, i immediately wash the pan with hot water in the sink to get rid of the excess caramel. wait too long and the caramel is tough to get rid of.
it's perfectly okay to drip caramel onto the side of the ramekins, i think it gives each flan an artisanal handmade look to them. perfection is not necessary since part of the caramel layer just stays in the bowl anyway once the flan has been poured out. i didn't coat the 6 ceramic ramekins for my godmother because there wasn't enough room in the oven for all the baking pans; those will have to be baked in a second batch.
after the caramel layer comes the pouring of the flan mixture. i use a mesh strainer to catch any lumpy bits of eggs. i was afraid the strainer would filter out the vanilla bits but they seemed to pass through without any problems. the straining isn't necessary, but i like to do it as an additional step, i think it gives a more even flan. it's kind of fun because i can hear the hot caramel crackling sometimes when the cold flan mixture is poured in the ramekins. and all the while the oven (preheating at 350°) is humming, ready to accept the baking pans.
into the oven went the flan, the larger aluminum tray on top, the smaller clear glass pyrex tray on the bottom. i set the timer at one hour and go wait in the living room. after an hour i checked the flan with a knife and they're still not solidified yet so i gave them another 30 minutes.
after 1:30 minutes, i take out the flan. the top layer is finished, but the bottom layer is still runny. i decided to put them back in the oven, but not before i prepare the 2nd batch of flan. i melted 3/4 cup of sugar to make the caramel and added them to the 6 ceramic ramekins, already sitting in a hot water bath. i was afraid i didn't have enough flan mixture but it turned out perfectly, with just a tiny amount left over that i drank down (it's essentially raw egg nog). the ceramic ramekins go on the top layer of the oven while the half-baked flan go on the bottom.
with nothing left to do but to wait for the final batch of flan to finish baking, i could finally make some dinner. i had some chicken mozzarella raviolis that i boiled, combined with a simple tomato sauce added with some loose frozen spinach. i finally sat down in the living room to eat around 8:40.
i originally set the timer to just 40 minutes, but the flan was still runny, so i added another 30 minutes, which seemed to do the trick.
the flan on the bottom layer was still slightly runny, particularly the ramekins in the center of the dish compared to the ones on the edge (those were finished), but overall better than before. i'll have to think about my baking strategy for next year considering baking flan on the bottom shelf underneath another pan doesn't seem to work very well. i may have to bake just one pan at a time.
i finally finished everything by 9:30. later, after the flan had cooled, i covered up the pans in plastic wrap and put them in the refrigerator.