On Mother’s Day, we celebrate our mothers. And on this holiday, I want to honor mine for the title she earned: “Worst Cook in the world.”
After many dinners dishing up rice that sat on a low flame all day developing an almost burnt crust, and serving dried-up pork, the honor seemed well deserved. But, she had a few fool proof recipes. Best among them was flan. Hers surpassed any I tasted in restaurants or private homes. It was creamy to perfection; the caramel, a rich amber, never disappointed—smooth and fluid to cover the flan with just the right amount of sweetness.
One day, feeling adventurous, I asked her for the recipe. “I don’t cook from recipes,” she said. “I learned from mamá, and she learned from her mother
Maybe my mother’s lack of culinary skills would be understood if I mention that she had enjoyed the privilege of a cook for many years. That was of course, until she came to this country as a refugee and had to do it all, cook, clean, work outside, and in her spare time entertain guests who after many unsuccessful meals learned to eat beforehand.
Over the phone, I noted the ingredients: 1 cup sugar, five eggs, 1 can condensed milk, 1 can evaporated milk, 1 cup regular milk, 1 tablespoon vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.
“There’s nothing to it,” she said. “You mix everything together. Eso es todo.”
That sounded like something I could do. Next day, I made sure I had everything I needed and called her.
“Now what?” I said.
“Melt the sugar first.”
“On a pot over the stove.”
“Until it’s done.”
“How do I know?”
“ Tu nariz. Your nose will tell you. Don’t let the sugar burn,” she warned.
That didn’t sound so easy. I dumped my cup of sugar in a pot—this I learned was the dry method of melting sugar—and on the lowest of flame I started the process. An hour into it, the sugar was not melting.
“Mamá,” I said on the phone. “This is not working.”
“Turn up the flame.”
“What if it burns?”
“You’ll have to start over again. Once it burns it’s not good.”
I turned up the flame but stirred the sugar too much and it lumped before it had a chance to liquefy. I pounded it down like an abusive father punishing his child, but this child would not yield. “Turn the heat lower. Baja la candela. It will dissolve,” mother said.” Then, she added, “Take a sniff once it begins to turn amber-colored. Keep smelling it, and you’ll be able to tell when it goes from almost-there…to deep, rich-caramel perfection. The aroma will tell you when.”
My small Manhattan kitchen barely had room for me, let alone my frustration. Every time I bent over to smell the caramel, my behind would hit the dishwasher. “Darn!” So close I’d get my nose into the pot, I thought it would melt before the sugar.
I did burn the caramel that first time—and cursed my mother a few times! It took me several more tries over a period of months before I mastered the technique. When your eyes and nose tell you it’s just right, however long that takes, you take it off the heat.
Once the caramel is done, you pour its content into a mold. After you combine the other ingredients, you transfer the mixture to the mold and bake it for an hour in a 350 degrees oven in a “bain-marie”– a large container with water into which you place your mold.
The key to a creamy flan is to have the center jiggling a bit when you take it out of the oven, otherwise the flan turns hard after being refrigerated.
If you follow the above process you will always have a perfect flan.
It’s been four years since my mother left this world. I’m glad the legacy of her flan remains with me. Ever since, I’ve tried recipes by others, including chocolate, coconut, pumpkin, orange flans. Nothing seems worth the effort and equal in taste to my mother’s original.
I no longer miss her flan. Mine is just as good. She said so. But I do miss the burnt crust on her rice and dry pork she served us for holidays. No one can replicate those recipes with such flair!
Happy Mothers’ Day to mamá, and all the mothers, who watch over us from near or a world above. We will keep the tradition of your recipes alive.
IMPORTANT: Bookmark this page. In honor of all mothers, every week in May, I will post a different recipe from my mother. Ones she learned to perfection. Ones that will keep you licking your fingers every time.