lessons from flan

There is such a thing as eating too much flan.

This nugget of wisdom hit me like a rock to the gut early in life. I was six.

We were living in Caracas, Venezuela, and my mother had just made flan. The baked custard, dripping in caramel and flavored with vanilla, was a family favorite. Like all those things one holds dear, flan was a rare treat. When it happened, we celebrated. (With flan.)

Flan leftovers never lingered, and the rule of scarcity wielded its mighty influence over a little girl with big eyes. Dedicated to the ultimate win, I practically ate my weight in custard. After dinner, I went back for seconds. Then thirds. Next, fourths. The math on this wasn’t complicated, folks, only repetitive.

Can’t say that I felt greedy, only justified. Why eat more dessert tomorrow when I could eat it that very day?

It wasn’t long before I got my answer: An epic stomach ache. Quick learner that I was, I vowed to abstain from flan. Forever.

This was fine in Venezuela, where flan was as ubiquitous as rice and beans. If I rejected flan, it was like saying no to, like, oatmeal cookies in the U.S. No big deal. Just chalk it up to being a finicky gourmand.

But they say context is everything, and it was so with flan.

A few years and many flans later, my family found itself in South Florida, living in a ranch-style house amid a working class neighborhood where we were the first foreigners to move into our street. With unspoken agreement, we all decided to take on the roles of friendly ambassadors bridging two very different worlds.

Other families on our block ate cupcakes or baked cookies. We did flan.

When my brother’s friends came over, and we had flan in the house, our cultural exchange came in the form of custard. Ditto my father, who would invite friends from his office for dinner, marking an occasion that called for — of course — flan!

As I watched others marvel and admire our very own dessert icon, I tried to fit in. After all, how was I going to convince the gringos that flan was delicious if I couldn’t even stomach it? It was hopeless — the smallest bite induced a wave of nausea that tasted strongly of eggs. I remained an outsider in a household of outsiders.

Over time, things changed. It was a small collection of events that culminated into yet another discovery: flan is good.

Like that time I was in college and a friend and I went out to a favorite Cuban place, a family-owned restaurant where the food was so good I dared to try a bite of my friend’s flan. For our next visit? I ordered my own for dessert.

Then there was that class in pastry school, where I learned to make one of flan’s culinary cousins, creme brulee. Creamy on the inside, topped with a layer of brittle burnt sugar.

And the day I decided to make flan myself. From cooking the caramel to scraping up vanilla beans to releasing the final concoction from its mold, these were moments I could enjoy without taking a single bite.

That’s a lesson worth celebrating. With flan.

carrots in cake forever

I grew up in a household with a strict produce paradigm.

Salads had tomatoes or lettuce. Maybe celery if we were feeling spunky. Meat was seasoned with garlic and onions. Anything sweet was reserved strictly for dessert.

The only exception was our beloved empanadas. Chilean empanadas are made with a hot water crust pastry that encloses practically an entire meal within its folds. Ground or diced beef is spiced with cumin and onions, and is served alongside a sliver of a hard boiled egg and one black olive. Included in the meat mix are a couple of soaked raisins. That’s how Chileans rock their sweet-and-salty combo.

But this isn’t a post about empanadas. It’s about a line drawn in the sand. It’s about carrots.

I can still remember the day when I heard gringos ate cake with carrots. I was in school at Banyan Elementary, and my classmate, Andy, was celebrating his birthday. To do so, his mother was bringing in carrot cake, and when the teacher made the announcement, the whole class clapped. The whole class except for me.

I eventually figured things out. Carrots are naturally sweet — and the cream cheese and walnuts certainly round things out nicely. However, for me carrot cake stood out as an exception. Perhaps carrots were the clever maverick in the produce department, I thought. It’s not like mushrooms would ever belong in dessert.

But then they did. When I was in pastry school in Manhattan, a local chef visited to do a demo on savory-inspired desserts. And what did he make? Mushroom ice cream, of course. This time, I did join the rest of the students when it came time to thank the good chef.

Fast forward a couple years. That’s when I found myself working at a farm-to-table restaurant in the Flatiron District where the pastry chef had zucchini cake on her dessert menu. The garnish? Candied celery leaves.

Of course.

almond rhubarb tart

It’s spring at my house when I start breaking into my stash of summer clothes … but still cover up with insulated jackets and wool socks.

In the store, it’s spring when the rhubarb shows up. Right across from the shiny red strawberries that are dead white inside.

Much like dressing for a transitional season, I think it can be tough to work with rhubarb. It’s a stalk, for one thing — not a dainty raspberry that can crown the top of a cake. It’s basically just like celery, which you would never cut up and display over, say, an eclair.

Color is an issue too. All the pretty bright pink is only on the outside. And when it’s not pink, it’s green, which ruins the iconography. I used to know one chef who’d color his rhubarb compote with grenadine to keep things in the pink.

For me, though, the uncertainty is part of the charm of the season, like snow in late April. Tank tops with corduroys come around only once a year, and rhubarb does too.

chocolate hazelnut crepe cake

When I was a kid, I was an immigrant.

I moved here when I was seven, and I didn’t even know how to say hello or thank you. Inevitably, this led to some awkward moments.

Like when my friend and I spent one bus ride to school discussing in depth the exploits of a particular orange tabby only to figure out that he was talking about Heathcliff, as in the television cartoon, and I Garfield, as in the newspaper funnies. While I was learning English, it was hard following tv — people talked too fast, and I missed what was happening. But with the paper, I had the time and imagination I wanted to fill in the talking bubbles myself.

It was kind of the same with pancakes.

Time went on, as it does, and my gringo language skills improved. I got the accent down, and forget cartoons, I was delving into MTV barely a year in the U.S. Still, there was much to learn.

See, I was born in Chile, where a lot of food traditions can trace their heritage to colonial ties. In many ways, eating customs in South America are more European than, say, American. Santiagoans make time for tea, for instance. In the U.S., people make time for second dinner.

Along the same vein, pancakes mean different things to Americans north and south of the equator.

My grandmother made me Chilean pancakes, because she was Chilean. Naturally, this dish actually consisted of crepes, which are French. While the thin, butter-fried pancakes where still warm, my grandmother Elia would spread her homemade apricot preserves on top and roll it up like a taquito (which is Mexican). It was heaven on earth.

So imagine my surprise when, one morning, my family and I, freshly arrived in Broward County, Florida, are at a diner ordering breakfast. I ask for pancakes, and what I get is a stack of wide, spongy patties that arrive with pats of butter and tree sap. I’m pretty sure I felt betrayed.

Confusion eventually gave way to clarity, and over the years I’ve come to realize that not only are gringo pancakes quite tasty, being an immigrant means sharing more cultural traditions, not less. And some of those traditions come in the form of crepe cakes.

 

pretty in pastel Easter cake

It’s been a while since I cut into the world of cake. (See what I did there?)

For the better part of a year, I’ve been dedicated to croissants. Laminating them. Shaping them. Proofing them. Baking them. Eating them.

Easter is a holiday of resurrection: no better time to dust off the old offset and go back to techniques I learned during my days running a cake station, whether at a high-bustle restaurant or an artisan bakery. Relived the satisfaction of leveling a cake by eye … and the grief of careless piping bag placement. Biblical for sure.

meringue cake with strawberries

One of my favorite cakes is, by definition, no cake at all.

The meringue cake is only a cake by technicality. It looks like a cake and cuts like a cake (albeit messily), so it lands into the cake category of confections. Only there’s no cake.

There’s filling, yes. Whipped cream. And there’s icing, sure. More whipped cream.

But the sustenance is meringue. Dry, crisp, airy rounds of baked meringue. No flour, no butter, only sugar and egg whites.

At this point most people would consider this cake to be like a pavlova, that flattened mound of meringue topped with a cloud of whipped cream and fruit. Sound familiar?

The layers make all the difference, however. I think the best way to eat a meringue cake is to not eat it. At least not right away. Let it sit in the fridge. Let the meringue soak up some of the cream and soften a little, because that’s when the world starts to shift. What was once dry and baked is now dewy and spongy, and you end up with this messy mix of crispy and chewy and soft and crunchy that’s more than the sum of its parts and it just makes you want to dance.

Talk about layered.

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maraschino cherry upside down cake with pineapples

Pastry school ruined my sweet tooth.

Once, my landscape of sugar options was vast and varied. Twinkies were amazing. Any midnight visit to a diner called for a sliced of pie. I kept a jar of maraschino cherries in the fridge like some people keep mustard.

All this was before I enrolled at The French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). There, I put on kitchen whites for the first time. I learned how to hold a piping bag and witnessed the many perils that can befall a wooden spoon left in the wrong place.

What also happened was that I was shown what really good food was. Every class started with the fresh baked baguettes made by the bread students at the end of the hall. We were taught how to make chocolate from scratch — as in straight from the cacao pod.

Without realizing it, my tastes began to change. My palette was shifting.

I found that I could taste pie dough not made with butter. Or a candy bar with inferior chocolate.

If this comes across as bragging, I’m not. Frankly, this left me kind of in mourning.

At first, I felt turned around. I had never considered myself a food snob. In 2009, I don’t think I’d heard the term foodie. I only identified as a sweet tooth. Thought that pretty well captured my very open enthusiasm for all things dessert.

As classes and internships exposed me to different ingredients and techniques, it dawned on me I was crossing some sort of gustatory threshold that I’d never return from. It was both a loss and a profit.

Today I’m different. I crave dark chocolate now. Even so, my everyman tendencies still come out to party now and again. Which brings me to the topic of cake.

See, at the end of the day, you gotta be true to yourself. That may mean maraschino cherry upside cake with pineapple.

 

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