After my parents divorced, my dad sold his business and moved to Spain. You could hardly blame him– being a sailor in England is a distinctly depressing occupation, and I have many memories of sitting on his boat on the river Crouch, staring at the brown mud around us, and the grey rain drizzling down, wondering why on earth anybody would want to do this. Turns out that nobody really wants to do that at all, so he moved to Spain, where the sun shone, and the garlic flowed in profusion, and the women walked around in bikinis, and, well let’s just say that dad liked that.
My favourite things about his move were, other than the fact that we got to sail in bathing suits all the time, all food associated. I loved going out for drives in the Spanish countryside, stopping at little farms by the side of the road to pick up gallon jugs of wine, and ceramic crocks of honey, and delicious olives. I loved waking up at 6am, and wandering into town to bring back a newspaper and croissants fresh from the baker’s oven*. I loved long leisurely lunches in the local cafes. I loved the markets that ran for miles and overflowed with fresh fruit and vegetables and fish and ham and eggs and chickens running around in between your feet as you tried to walk (mouth agape). And I loved Spanish food. Little octopi, fried until just slightly crispy and sprinkled with lemon juice. Fresh sardines thrown on the grill until the meat was perfect. Tiny fresh anchovies that packed such massive flavour. Calamari, not battered and deep fried like they do here, but sauteed in butter and drizzled with lemon juice and herbs. Spanish tortillas– big fluffy potato frittatas. Paella. Gaspacho. Flan.
Flan. Also known as creme caramel (in French speaking countries). In the UK it’s sold in little yogurt containers, that tasted more like a sick taunt about what you could be enjoying than something that sent you into blissful reverie about your last summer holiday. The best I ever had was at this little restaurant called Pepe that was out in the Jalon Valley, (I have no idea if it’s still there.) where we would sit for hours eating and laughing. While the smells of the mediterranean blew on a warm breeze through the little patio. While the local kids played football in the dirt-road-parking lot. While the sun set, and the sangria flowed, and at the end of it all was this perfect bite of custard and caramel. And like most rustic, traditional foods, it’s really easy to make, and is a good way to use up some raw milk that is just starting to turn.
Ironically, this has been the cloudiest July that I’ve ever seen here in Southern California. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately daydreaming about the sun and the sea. So here’s to blissful reverie– I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
For best taste, space the cooking of this recipe out– give the custard 24 hours for the flavours to infuse, and the final cooked product another 24 hours. So, if you want it for dinner on Saturday night, you can do the caramel ahead of time, on, say Wednesday, and get that out of the way. Make the custard on Thursday night. Then do the final cooking on Friday night, which allows it to rest for 24 hours. Each little part only takes ten minutes or so, so it’s not actually a big time consuming thing, it just takes a little planning (or in my case, remembering while in bed falling asleep, and scaring Jam, by leaping out of bed to run downstairs to make a quick custard). I’m a big fan of dinner party desserts that are out of the way already– it’s just one less thing to think about, because I tend to get un peu stressed out when I’ve got five things cooking and people arriving at any minute and the kitchen is a mess and my hair has gone frizzy from the heat and, well, you get the picture…
For the record, I’ve done the whole thing at once, in a hurry, and it still turns out fine. More than fine. Delish.
For the caramel:
2/3 cup sugar
2 tb butter.
For the custard:
4 cups milk
1 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla extract
First, make the caramel. Place the sugar in an even layer, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and turn the heat to medium. When the sugar starts to melt around the edges, start watching it closely. If it starts smoking, pull it off the heat and give it a quick stir, then put it back on. Continue until all the sugar is melted. When it’s all melted, and it starts to smoke, remove from heat, add the butter, and pour into the bottom of an 11″ dish. I use a pie dish as I only have that or a square dish. You can also use individual ramekins. This has to be done quite quickly as the caramel will cool off and go solid quite fast, so pour it in, and spread it over the bottom as fast as you can. And of course, be careful– this hot sugar business is mighty hot; I’ve burned many a finger and taste-bud in forgetting that.
Now, the custard. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine milk and sugar, and warm over medium heat until the sugar is melted. Add the vanilla and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, while this is happening, whisk the eggs and egg yolks in a big bowl (to eliminate mess, I just do the eggs in the container I plan on storing everything overnight in). When the milk is warm enough, remove from the heat, and ladle a couple of scoops of the milk into the eggs, whisking constantly. Then add the eggs back into the milk mixture (this tempers the eggs, so that they do not cook immediately upon contact with the warm milk). Pour the whole lot into a container, and store in the fridge for up to 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 300. Boil the kettle.
Pour the custard mixture over the caramel, and place the pie dish (or flan dish) in a bigger cooking container (I use my big frying pan). Pour boiling water into the pan 1″ up the side of the flan dish. Place in the oven and cook for about 55 minutes– until, upon jiggling, the center of the flan looks, erm, jiggly but not solid. You can also touch it, press down on it lightly. If it’s firm but not solid then it’s ready. If your hand goes right through it then run it under cold water until the burning goes away, and cook it a bit longer.
When ready, remove from the heat, leave at room temperature until cool, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
To serve, pour boiling water in the same pan you cooked the whole thing in, and place the flan in the boiling water for a minute or two, to loosen up the caramel. Slice and serve inverted on a plate, so that the caramel dribbles down the sides, with a dollop of whipped cream.
*In fact, to this day, whenever I’m on holiday somewhere new, I wake up early and wander around on my own. Nothing makes me happier. Especially in touristy places, I find that the tourists come out after breakfast, but before breakfast, you catch a whiff of what a place is really like, when the fish are coming in, and the bread is coming out. The essence of a place, to me, lies here.