Sunday, June 27, 2010

Flan, Barcelona

We recently returned from a couple weeks in Morocco, followed by a few days in Barcelona. I always get to eat amazing food with my husband's family in Morocco, and from time to time I've posted family recipes on here. But Barcelona was fairly new for me. I'd been there ten years ago but didn't do much touristy stuff then - literally the Picasso museum and a couple nightclubs. Now, with a two-year-old whom we dragged to Japan in December, I was apprehensive. Japan was amazing, but she never seemed to catch up with the jet lag, and it was too cold and crowded everywhere for her to walk much, so she mostly got shuttled around in her stroller. But she did great in Barcelona and was a good sport about everything. We did everything we wanted to do -- eating in the Plaza Real on a late night when we arrived (she loved paella with mussels and chicken), riding the double decker open-top tourist bus all day, getting out to see things like Gaudi's unfinished, trippy Sagrada Familia church, walking endlessly up and down the streets from La Rambla, the wide, tree-lined walking boulevard in the middle of the city, to Barceloneta by the beach. We took the cable cars (which S calls "tiny houses") up the mountain of Montjuic, from which you can see the entire, breathtaking city and port spread below. Our daughter's favorite thing was the array of people posed on La Rambla who pretend to be statues, some of which were amazingly creative. Like the metallic, tin-colored chimney sweep who seems to be reclining on a chair, yet there's no chair visible beneath him.

I was on a paella kick, and we stumbled upon a pretty good one our first night in La Plaça Reial (note: Catalan spelling, not Spanish), where the guys who gave us the keys to the apartment we'd rented (free sales pitch: had recommended we go. It was late, our flight from Morocco had arrived at 10, so we wandered around La Plaça Reial, which is down a street from the main drag, staring at the fifteen or so restaurants until we randomly picked one called Ambos Mundos. Of course there were a lot of tourists, but there were a lot of Spanish people, too, and I took this as a good sign. It was great fun to finally be off the plane, sitting outside in perfect weather, sipping sangria and eating patatas bravas (potato wedges with a spiced mayonnaise sauce). Paella had chicken & seafood and was very good, but it wasn't the place I'd planned to eat paella. That honor went to La Taverna Catalana, in an affluent neighborhood called Eixample, about a 45 minute walk from where we were staying. This neighborhood was built on a grid design in the 19th & 20th centuries and has some gorgeous modernista architecture and also seems designed for walking. (I'd read a book about Barcelona architecture ahead of time, by Robert Hughes, so I felt much more in-the-know about the buildings I was seeing than I normally do).

After a stop off at the department store El Corte Ingles, where of course I'd had to buy a 30 Euro paella pan to take home, we arrived at La Taverna Catalana at 7:30 and were told they didn't start dinner until 8:00, but they obliged us with cañas (little glasses of beer) and tapas (appetizers) while we waited. This place was not at all near hotels or anything touristy, and the few people dining that early were definitely locals. When it was time to order, we got another paella. This one was also really good, with grilled vegetables radiating out from a mountain of saffron-colored rice.

Non paella-related cuisine experiences included trying a fast food vegetarian restaurant called Maoz, which had incredible falafel with a million different colorful veggie toppings and sauces, and La Boqueria, this amazing central market that has been around for centuries and sells everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to cinnamon-sugar coated almonds, ham hocks, olives, baguettes, and cheeses. I was able to successfully eat my way through Barcelona, and found it surprisingly affordable.

So why is this post entitled "flan"? First of all, because although I've broken in the paella pan, I didn't make a paella I was ready to write about yet. Secondly, because flan is ubiquitous in Morocco, at restaurants and in homes, and it's pretty much everywhere in Spain, too, though I suspect in most of the places I have eaten it, that it's made from a mix. In Morocco you can buy Flan Ideal in every tiny drygoods shop-- instant flan mix, just add hot milk and refrigerate. (I even found these cool old commercialsfrom Moroccan t.v. for the flan mix.) Okay, so it's not terrible, but it's not great either. But I suspected I could do it better from scratch, and find a relatively simple recipe for it too so I could just whip it up anytime. After tinkering, I think I've found one. But with a caveat - due to the Florida humidity, although the caramel turned out perfectly the first time, the second time I made it, it turned into sugar. I redid it, only to have it crystallize again. I have made caramel before and never had this happened. I spent an hour and a half standing over the stupid stove, trying to get it right. I tried to be careful about not getting the sugar crystals back in the sauce to not contaminate it, but to no avail. With the help of Google, I learned a trick - a teaspoon of corn syrup will keep this nasty problem from ever happening again, so nothing now can stand between you and a show stopping yet simple flan...


Caramel sauce:

1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tsp. corn syrup


*1 14 ounce can evaporated milk
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla

4 large or 6 small ramekins

1) In a small saucepan, bring water and sugar to a simmer, stir to dissolve sugar, then turn heat down low and allow to simmer until it starts to turn golden. Watch carefully until it turns amber (takes at least 20 minutes, but you can ignore it for most of the time), then pour evenly among your ramekins. Now preheat your oven to 350.

2) In a mixer (or with a whisk), blend milk with sugar, egg yolks and vanilla until bubbly. Pour among the ramekins and set them in a baking dish with high sides (I was able to use 4 big ramekins and a square, 8x8 baking dish). This is your water bath. Fill the baking dish with water up to the level of the milk mixture. Place baking dish/ramekins in oven, bake 40-45 minutes until golden brown and set. Remove from water bath and cool on a rack, then transfer to a refrigerator.

3) To serve, slide a knife around the flan and invert onto a plate.

*Lest anyone be suspicious or snobby concerning evaporated milk - it is basically milk from which 60% of the water has been removed, after which it is sterilized at 245 degrees farenheit, resulting in a slightly carmelized flavor which is nothing short of AWESOME. It is the secret ingredient in the best waffles I have ever had.

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