Saturday, February 25, 2006

What I Love about Flan

I adore flan.

I've never had it prepared by anyone but myself, and in fact, I doubt I would order it at a restaurant. It is one of three desserts I make (the others are sorbet and ice cream--similar, but I'll go ahead and think of them as two different things in order to make it appear that I am able to make more than two desserts). I'm not sure how or why I started making flan, only that even on the first try it came out essentially perfect, and I have been quite happy to keep making it on occasion since then.

The first flan I had was made by my grandparents' friend Peri, and brought to a thanksgiving dinner when I was perhaps 14 or 15 years old. I recall that I thought it looked devastating, but that it was more wierd than good to eat. I also recall that the various adults at the dinner fussed over it, giving the impression that it was both special and exotic.

Years later I found a recipe for it in one of my more favorite cookbooks, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. Since then I have made it for a number of dinner parties, most recently for the february gathering of our dinner group.

There are two things I love about flan. The first is that the custard is really not very sweet and not very rich. It is fabulously silky, but because it is made with only a minimum of sugar, and a mix of 2% milk and 1/2 and 1/2, it is more egg-y than sweet or creamy. The other thing I love is the caramel. Caramel is, of course, delicious, but it is also really cool. I cant get over the fact that it is really just sugar and water, and a chemical reaction that turns these two ingredients (one of which is hardly an ingredient, frankly) into an ambrosia. I don't know if there is a problem with my cooking skills, or if caramel really is one of the hardest things to get right in the kitchen, but I still only end up with a workable caramel sauce about two or three out of four times I make it. Perhaps I am not careful enough, but more than occasionally I end up with a crystalized brown sugar, rather than a caramel syrup.

I also love a flan pan. I got mine at fante's in Philly (in the Italian market):

The recipe I use is as follows:

Caramel coating and sauce

1 cup sugar
3 Tbs water
2 Tbs or so rum or brandy


2 cups milk
1 cup half and half
2 vanilla beans
5 large eggs
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
(If vanilla beans are too spendy, I have had good luck skipping them and adding an extra tsp vanilla extract)

Make the caramel by combining the sugar and water in a saucepan and heating (without stirring or shaking the pan). Oh, it is so hard not to fool with the pan, but do try to avoid it--this is one of the things that can make the sauce crystalize. Somewhere I read to moisten the sides of the pan, above the boiling sauce, using a pastry brush dipped in water, to help reduce the risk of crystalization. After several minutes the syrup will start to color. Swirl the syrup so it colors evenly, and once it is dark, but not too dark, pour off 1/4 cup or so of the syrup into the flan pan, and swirl to coat the bottom evenly. make the sauce now: pour 4 or 5 Tbs water into the caramel and stir over heat. The water will make the sauce bubble and spit, so be careful. when it is cool, stir in liquor. If it is too thick, you can reheat it with some more water in the microwave.

Make the custard

Preheat the oven to 350

Pour milk and half and half into a saucepan and scald. steep the vanilla beens in the milk mixture. Meanwhile, blend the eggs, yolk and sugar in a mixing bowl with a whisk. Mix well, but be careful not to creat foam or bubbles, as these will mar the final product. Remove the vanilla beans from the milk. Pour a little milk onto the egg mixture while stirring, to temper the eggs. Then gradually pour the rest of the milk mixture in, stirring, but still being careful not to introduce bubbles.

Place the flan in a bain marie (a second pan of water) and bake in the oven for 50 minutes or so. To test it for doneness, insert a knife in (being careful not to put it in more than an inch or so). if it comes out clean the flan is done (even if it still seems super jiggly).

Let the custard cool and then unmold by passing a knife around the circumference of the flan and then inverting onto a platter.

Serve cold, topped with extra caramel sauce.

The extra caramel sauce is really a very important part of the dish. Without it you have a not very sweet egg custard. With it, you have, well, something to write home about.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


I really should be grading papers right now, but I just had to write a quick post.

We had a short, but very sweet dinner at home this evening. Kristen, Jason, Kristen's Mom, and Ellen's mom, Judy came over for an early dinner before going to a school arts program that our and Kristen's kids were in. My dad, who is visiting from California, was here as well. We ate pizza and salad, and had a couple of bottles of tasty, if not exceptional wine.

The food was not particularly noteworthy, though it was quite pleasant, but the dinner was so nice. The main reason I started writing this blog is that I really enjoy the fact that we have been having visitors in for dinner so much more often lately. On the subject I have to include a bit more from Pomiane:

To prepare a dinner for a friend is to put into the cooking pot all one's affection and good will, all one's gaiety and zest, so that after three hours' cooking a waft of happiness escapes from beneath the lid.

Whatever a host [who loves to have his friends to dinner] offers to his guests, I am sure that it will be good, because he will have enjoyed the anticipation of it for a week beforehand and he will feel this same joy for a week afterwards in his pleasure at having charmed his guest.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cooking with Pomiane

I'm delighted.

Starting this blog was an excuse for me to buy a copy of my favorite food book, perhaps ever, Cooking with Pomiane, by Edouard de Pomiane, and it arrived in the mail yesterday.

The book captures everything I think is wonderful about cooking and eating, and is written in a style that is direct and engaging. The beauty of Pomiane's work is in the little, telling detail, and in the intense, multi-sensual pleasure of cuisine he manages to capture. For instance, his recipe for fried mushrooms:

1/2 lb. small, firm mushrooms, lard or vegetable oil for deep-frying, 2 eggs, 5 tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder.

[there follows a fairly standard recipe, that includes making a batter, dunking and frying the mushrooms, and serving them sprinkled with salt and fried parseley]

and then:

Taste one of the mushrooms--with your fingers, of course. You will burn your tongue, but this is the classic way to sample a friture. Inside their crisp, burning jackets the mushrooms are hardly warm and almost raw, full of the delicate, earthy scent of the fields.
I love the way Pomiane addresses you, the reader so directly, it is disarming; and I love the way he manages to capture the taste, feel, and smell of this dish.

This reminds me of an essay by Alain de Botton "On Writing (and Trouts)," in which he describes how hard it is to write in a way that really captures life. Speaking of his own first book, a journal he kept at age eight, he says, "If the book is unreadable, it's because, despite the author's best intentions, and neat handwriting, he is unable to capture much of what is actually happening. There is a list of facts, the trout, and a weather reprot, but life has slipped out of the picture." He goes on:
Much writing is like that. even when the spelling improves, it takes a struggle to arrange words so they do justice to our intentions. Typically the written account grazes the surface of an event, we see a sunset and later in the diary, fumble for something and call it 'beautiful' when we know it was a lot more, but the more can't be fixed and is soon forgotten. ...It takes more to capture life than a faithful record of sense-experience.

Another bit that I can not get enough of is a set of essays at the end of the book, which describe whole meals. These combine descriptions of shopping, cooking, and eating, with recipes. The section entitled "A Lunch in the Country" is perfect--the menu is so aesthetically on target ("My friends must be given the warmest welcome I can offer, without any pretensions or fuss--no complicated, dressed-up dishes. ...I shall give them the very best that is to be found in the village, and cook it in the simplest possible way. I need to make: scrambled eggs, shoulder of lamb roasted on the spit, mushrooms with thyme, fresh garden peas with lettuce.") The final paragraph:

And now there are a succession of joys:
The eggs with a glass of cider--just like velvet
The roast with its gravy and the mushrooms which I warmed whilst I was dishing the roast--a rustic cooking with a primitive freshness. With this, a glass of Burgundy.
The peas follow, soothingly bland
The cheese...the strawberries and cream...the coffee...a thimbleful of plum brandy....Contentment....The joy of living and of loving one's friends.
I am perhaps most impressed by these touches in Pomiane's work because he was not, by profession, at least, an essayist. He was a food scientist who worked at the Institute Pasteur in Paris in the first half of the 20th century.

I should confess I have never cooked out of this book. Not that you couldn't, only that I haven't. I savor it more for aesthetics than recipes.

Perhaps I will try some of the recipes soon.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


It has been a fairly temperate Winter here, for the most part--only a single real snow so far, and Spring is perhaps a month away. We've had two very cold days in a row now, though, and I'm reminded of how much I adore Winter cooking. I'm not from a cold climate, but I have lived in the cold since I left home--in Wisconsin, Seattle, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and now Illinois. As a kid cold weather was an exotic treat, because it meant a trip to the mountains. I have never really adapted, and Winter that you can't escape by driving back down the mountain has a way of putting me in a bad mood. I look to Winter food--stews, roasts, braised vegetables, fresh-baked bread--as a consolation of sorts.

Today I am making a pot roast and incidentally using up the last of the thyme and sage I dried before the cold weather set in. I like the idea of putting away enough food from the summer to keep till spring, but never quite manage it. This year we had almost nothing because we moved and then spent the late summer and fall in Australia, which meant that our garden amounted only to a few tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in pots.

Pot roast is, like a number of foods I love, one of those recipes that is more a procedure than a dish, per se. As such, it allows for a remarkable variety of changes, depending on what materials you have on hand. At its heart it involves braising beef with some sort of sofrito.

I am partial to Chuck cuts for making pot roast, especially if it can be bought intact with its bones. The stores I go to here seldom have bone-in chuck, which is a shame. The bones add so very much to the flavor and feel of the final dish.

Today I used a base of onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, all browned thoroughly in olive oil, but when I have it I also like to add celery root or fennel bulb, and I might omit the garlic, celery, or carrot. The onion is indispensible, though, I think. After browning the meat qute darkly, I deglazed with a zinfandel, and added tomato, thyme and sage, salt, peppercorns, and water. The deglazing liquid is so important in giving the stock character. I like it with Belgian beer, and was surprised to discover how nice a dry white wine can be in a beef dish when I used it a bit ago. In a pinch Vermouth is a fine choice, as well, I've found. When I have a stock on hand I like to use it, but there's enough in the pot already that it will be plenty rich by the time it's cooked.

In the past I tended to add flour at the beginning, when browning the meat, but lately I have tended to thicken the dish at the end, using a flour/water slurry, or using flour rubbed into butter.

I'll finish the dish with chopped parseley, and serve with potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and crusty bread. It is probably a reflection on my character that I find it almost impossible to wait till the very end to add the parseley. It's good to sprinkle some on top when taking it to the table, but I like to add a bit a little earlier, giving it just enough time to cook and become part of the dish, rather than a garnish.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Simple Dish

I am a great fan of complicated food in some situations. The depth of flavor in a mole, especially a deep, dark black oaxacan mole, made from scratch over a number of days and simmered for hours with turkey, the array of textures in a pallella, the hormonal flavour and unctuous mouth-feel of braised ox tails or lamb shanks the day after cooking them, all of these and more are some of my favorite things to eat. Cooking complicated food is also an experience to relish, as so much is involved. When I was in my teens and twenties I wanted to eat like that all the time, every meal of every day; but in the past six or seven years I have found as much pleasure in very simple food as in the complex.

I love a meal of tortillas and refried beans. The beans should be cooked, allowed to cool, and then reheated ("refried" of course does not refer to this double cooking procedure, but to the fact that you want to fry them up thoroughly in the second cooking). I like the anis-y flavour that adding epazote to the beans creates, but it is not necessary. The creamy, earthy flavor of the beans, sweetened just slightly and made a little smoky by frying them in bacon fat is more than enough. It's all the more lovely if the tortillas are fresh made, either from the tortilleria, or at home. In Modesto, California, where I grew up, Ellen and I used occasionally to shop at La Perla Tapatia, on the south side of town. If we got there at the right time they would be bringing fresh-made tortillas out of the back. The smell and feel of the big stacks of little 4 inch tortillas still pillow-y and steaming from the grill is overpowering even now as I remember it years later.

When Isabella was born, I had her and Coleman at home after school often, just around 1 pm, just in time to have a late lunch. My favorite simple meal was to make quesadillas. Not the big, dripping, sour cream and chicken and every other ingredient in the kitchen sort that are on every chain restaurant menu in the U. S., but the kind Rick Bayless describes in his various cookbooks. When making tortillas, if, instead of grilling on both sides, you grill them lightly on the first side and put cheese and maybe a little leftover meat or sauteed vegetable on them before the top cooks and then fold them over and press the sides down to seal them, they are unbelievable. This is the ultimate simple food: corn masa and cheese; and yet it has such to offer. The inside of the tortilla stays creamy and blends with the cheese, the outsides get crunchy and brown.

I discovered my favorite simple dish when I was living in St. Louis in the late 90s. At the time St. Louis was not a great restaurant city (it has gotten much better in the last few years), and in any case, I was in graduate school, Ellen and I had a new baby, and we were beyond poor. There weren't any good Chinese restaurants near us (plenty of chop suey, though), but there were a bunch of interesting Chinese grocery stores on Olive in University City. I was excited to learn to cook Chinese food because it offers an almost unending array of variety and depth of complexity--really learning to cook it could occupy a whole lifetime. I have never become more than a passable cook of Chinese food of any sort, but I did run across a recipe for a soup in an odd little Chinese cookbook from the 60s that I made almost every day at about 10 am for a few years, and that I still love and make occasionally. The book called it "Soup for the Gods." I consists of soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, green onions, and water (I have also seen this recipe elsewhere to include minced ginseng root). To make it, you chop one green onion per bowl, and combine the onion at the bottom of a bowl with perhaps a half teaspoon of soy sauce and a drizzle of sesame oil. I let this sit while heating up the water, during which time the onions soak up the flavor of the soy and sesame. Once the water is hot, fill the bowl with it and the soup is done. Though there is very little more than water and salt in this soup, from a nutritional standpoint, it is surprisingly satisfying.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A note on the name of this blog

When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to eat at restaurants. Home made bread was crumbly and wierd, and soda seemed better than juice. I still love eating at restaurants, and drink my share of pop. But somewhere along the way I discovered that eating at home involved more than good food, and had pleasures that restaurants could not compare with. Add to this that there are so terribly few good restaurants in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and we have plenty of opportuinty to make food that is, as Kristen said, "Better than the restaurant."


I've been cooking for as long as I can remember. I don't remember starting to cook, or not yet cooking. I think I prepared food for myself starting when I was in grade school. By the time I was in high school cooking vied with listening to music, watching movies, and making out for the title of favorite activity. In my teens and twenties I always had groups of friends who could be gathered together to cook and share the pleasure of eating. The years of graduate school were solemn and lonely for me in many ways--not utterly, but substantially. Living in St. Louis, trying to finish a Ph.D., having young children, living at times below the poverty line, all took a toll on my mental health. Since graduate school I have gradually and not always gracefully tried to acclimatize to adulthood. Imagine my shock looking up in the past few months to discover that as I inch towards mid-life a rich, full, viable adulthood seems to be coming into focus.

The richness of my life was thrown into releif last night sharing a mexican dinner with Ellen, and our friends Kristen, Jason, Keeril, and Chrysa, and overseeing a slumber party for Coleman's ninth birthday at the same time. I have plenty of things to be happy for--a tenure-track professorship at a major public university, fair health, a deep and beautiful marriage of more than a decade with Ellen, loving brother and sisters, old friends and new friends, and on and on--but nothing quite reminds me of how sweet, and how savory life is than good food and good company.

I was inspired by Kristen's remark that these dinners should be documented. Of course. Somehow it seems delightful to have a place to keep track of the spectacular food we make, the equally spectacular failures on the way to making good food, memories of cooking, eating, and the rest of life, books, movies, and so on. With a little luck I'll manage to post a couple of times a week.

For now, I'll post recipies for the three salsas Ellen and I made:

Pico de Gallo

This is the ultimate fresh salsa. I've made this based on recipies in an old cookbook by Elena Zelayeta, in Rick Bayless' various books, and lord knows where else.

Ingredients: Tomatoes, onion, chiles (Serrano or Jalapeno), garlic, limes, and cilantro. It's pretty hard to describe the quantities. I'd say 3 or 4 tomatoes, depending on size, 1/2 to 1 onion, 3-10 chiles, depending on how hot they are, how big they are, and how hot you want the salsa to be, 3 cloves garlic, 1-3 limes depending on how juicy they are, and a handful of cilantro, leaves and stems.

Chop and combine everything in a bowl. I think the tomato pieces should be a bit bigger than everything else. Many books reccomend rinsing the onion after dicing, to mellow it, but it doesn't seem like it makes a real difference to me. Some books reccomend removing the seeds and ribs from the chiles. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, depending on whether I want a hotter or a more vegetal salsa. Last night I did remove them, because the other salsas were hot. Many recipies say not to put the cilantro in until right before serving, as the herb breaks down in the lime and tomato juice. I don't usually make salsa much in advance, so I don't worry about it.

The other two salsas are deeply simple, but fabulous recipies from Bayless' Mexican Everyday

Chipotle-tomatillo salsa

Ingredients: garlic cloves (3? 4?), tomatillos (4? 5?), 2-3 canned chipotles with adobo, salt.

Roast the garlic and halved tomatillos in a cast iron pan (I have a little 8 inch number that I use for this and toasting tortillas and pretty much nothing else). Transfer to blender along with chipotles, adobo sauce, and 1/4 cup water. Blend. Salt to taste and allow to cool before eating.

Guajillo Chile Salsa

Ingredients: Oil, 2 dried guajillo chiles (Bayless suggests arbol chiles as a much hotter variation), garlic cloves (3? 4?), tomatillos (4? 5?), salt

Remove seeds from chiles and tear into little pieces. Heat a little oil in a skillet and fry chiles till they become aromatic. The smell is fruity and sour and flowery, and can make your eyes water. Transfer chiles to blender, drain most of the oil, and fry halved tomatillos and garlic in the skillet. Transfer to blender along with 1/2 cup water. Blend. Salt to taste and allow to cool before serving. This salsa should be plenty watery.