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Sweet Disaster!

Tue Sep 25, 2007

flan

My flan on the left, Bon Appetit’s on the right…

Sometimes I forget I’m not a chef. When friends come over for dinner I spend hours planning the menu, littering the floor with so many back issues of Bon Appétit, Gourmet and cookbooks while trying to find the “core” recipe to build my meal around, that getting off my couch is like stepping into a mine field. Shopping becomes an hours-long ordeal—sometimes with the occasional realization that my budget doesn’t always match my palate (three pounds of organic beef tenderloin for $80?). Then there’s the prep, the slicing and chopping and tasting and measuring into ramekins for later. By the time I actually start cooking the meal, I’m imagining myself in a professional kitchen on a busy night of service.

But I’m not in a professional kitchen. I make mistakes. Some dishes are unsuccessful. And unlike a chef, I don’t generally take the time to work the kinks out of a dish before I serve it to people. And that pretty much explains Thursday night’s Sweet Potato Flan from the October 2007 issue of Bon Appétit.

The flan in the magazine was beautiful, it’s silken texture and ethereal liquid caramel and pure autumn color shimmered on the page. I couldn’t wait to taste the cool, creamy custard slip across my tongue. So I woke up early on Thursday to make the flan before work, making sure I would give it adequate time to chill before dinner. I measured out all of the ingredients, set up the water bath then began to make the caramel. This was, might I add, the first time I ever made caramel, so I stood and stirred, watching the sugar thicken and darken, like a pot full of molten amber. When it was ready, I crossed the kitchen and without thinking, started to pour the caramel into the readied cake pan, which was already sitting in the water bath. The caramel hardened immediately, a frozen puddle.

I equate this initial mistake as the beginning of the end of my perfect flan dreams. While my boyfriend put the cake pan into the preheated oven, hoping to melt the caramel back down enough to coat the bottom of it, if not the sides, I proceeded. But I didn’t temper the egg enough when adding the hot cream, so the eggs kind of cooked, making the mixture kind of lumpy and curdled. Even after I strained the custard, it still resembled sweet potato pie more than the smooth dessert I had envisioned.

If all of that weren’t enough, the flan broke in half when I tried to flip it onto serving dish. It was strangely crumbly and less than beautiful. The caramel had created a sticky film covering the surface like fly paper. Nothing like I’d planned, I served the flan and though everybody seemed to enjoy it, I couldn’t eat more than a couple of bites. I can’t say that it tasted bad, necessarily, but expectation and disappointment leave a strange aftertaste that doesn’t quite go with dessert.

I thought about many of the younger chefs I’ve known and the temper tantrums some of them have thrown when something doesn’t have to work out or when they make a make. I tried not to get angry. I didn’t throw anything, except the uneaten flan into the garbage.

I’m definitely not a chef; I’m a writer. Words are still my best ingredients and with them, I get to share my successes in the kitchens—and my failures.

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