My memories of flan are many and varied. Growing up in a Cuban family, we almost always had flan for dessert after Sunday afternoon dinners, and it was almost always made by one of my grandmothers. The ritual was the same. Dinner done, they’d make their way slowly to the kitchen with an armload of dirty dishes. Pots and plates were washed or soaked while the espresso maker was switched on. As it finished brewing, the machine would steam and bang, and the flan would come out of the fridge in preparation for plating. Plating was a dangerous and tricky process whereby one held a plate upside down over the mold, said a little prayer, and flipped quickly. My grandmothers were experts at this maneuver. The mold was removed and caramel would stream from the top of the flan, smelling of vanilla and toasted sugar. A child’s dream come true and still one of the homiest smells I can imagine.
Though I love traditional flan and all the memories that come with it, I wanted to make something that was a little more Autumn. I took the traditional recipe and added pumpkin, cinnamon, cognac and a little mascarpone cheese. I also dressed it all up with honey cardamom pumpkin seeds and a sprinkling of sweet cocoa nibs. It ended up being a wonderful fall dessert full of caramel and spice and everything nice.
For the caramel:
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. coarse salt
For the flan:
1 cup sugar
1 cup pureed pumpkin (I used canned because, I can be lazy too)
5 large eggs
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, room temperature
2 tbsp. cognac (optional)
For the toppings (all optional):
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 tsp. cardamom
2 tbsp. honey
1/4 cup sweet cocoa nibs (like these)
Equipment: a large 11 x 13 baking dish, 8 x 2 or 9 x 1.5 round cake pan (not a spring-form pan!)
Start by setting up your bain marie, or baÃ±o maria and we called it. Fill the large baking dish halfway with water, then place the cake pan in it. The water level should reach 3/4 of the way up to the rim, but shouldn’t be high enough to accidentally get into the cake pan. Remove the cake pan and set aside. Place the baking dish full of water in the center rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°.
Next, whisk together all of the ingredients for the flan until smooth. To avoid incorporating too many air bubbles, don’t whisk too vigorously. Once well combined, stir to release air bubbles, then set aside.
Place the sugar and salt in a saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar begins to melt into a caramel. Don’t leave this pan’s side while you’re making the caramel since it’s really easy to burn the sugar.
As soon as all the sugar is melted and the caramel isn’t cloudy, pour it into the bottom of the cake pan and swirl it around quickly until it coats the entire bottom of the pan. Give the flan batter another couple of stirs, then pour that over the caramel.
Seal the top of the pan very tightly with aluminum foil, then carefully place the flan inside the bain marie. Cook for 40 minutes (9-inch pan) or 45 minutes (8-inch pan), then remove the cake pan from the bain marie and let cool completely. Once it’s room temperature, place the flan in the fridge for 2 -3 hours before plating.
While the flan is baking, toss the pumpkin seeds with cardamom, then drizzle them with honey. Place them close together in a single layer on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven with the flan for 5 – 7 minutes. Remove and let cool completely.
To plate the flan, remove the foil and place a large plate over the cake pan. Get a good grip on the bottom of the cake pan and hold the plate firmly down on top of it. Say a little prayer, then quickly flip the pan. Gently pull the pan off the plate, allowing the caramel to drizzle over the top.
Slice and serve with a piece of the cardamom pumpkin seeds and sprinkling of cocoa nibs.
Makes 8 servings.