Friday, June 1, 2012

Falling into place

Coconut flan
Everything has to be up in the air for anything to fall into place. I read that a little while ago in an Ed Roberson poem, when everything really did feel up in the air for me. I was struggling to write and distracted by questions. What am I doing here, anyway? Where am I going from here? How am I going to get any of this done? It all had to do with these being the very last few weeks of my second year here. You see, when you're a graduate student, you can't just go on taking classes, writing suggestive twenty-page papers at the end of each, and then moving on. Eventually, you have to find something to commit to, something that you can't get out of your head, something that keeps you up at night. A dissertation certainly isn't the best or last thing a graduate student hopes to write, but like people say, it's work that defines you for some time to come. So, for a while, I was doing a lot of writing, a lot of handwringing, a lot of searching, and didn't have time for much else.
And our meals definitely suffered for it. The both of us were too busy, too tired, to cook with much thought, much excitement. We ate lots of hurried, uninspired dinners together after which we went straight back to work. Cooking and cleaning up were toilsome tasks. Our hearts and minds were elsewhere.
But just recently, things began to feel as though they were finally falling into place. Passages that I had been struggling with for a while suddenly made sense. I was able to write steadily and with satisfaction. And I made some progress with deciding on what I want to do next. I stumbled on a philosopher's work not much appreciated, not widely read, that struck me in a way that little philosophy tends to these days. I was thrilled. And I had a meeting with one of my advisors that was so reassuring. I was so relieved. I almost wanted to hug him, but that would have been weird.
Around the same time, Octavian and I invited a couple of friends over, and we had one of those deeply satisfying, memorable meals that just sticks with you. The day before, we'd just come home with Ferran Adrià's The Family Meal, so we decided to take our chances and cook the whole meal out of it: saffron risotto, a sharp salad of ribboned carrots and mint, sausages fried with thyme and garlic, and coconut flan. We were a little disorganized, and we didn't get food on the table until pretty late, but all of us, I think, were happy and full at the end of the night.
If you've heard anything about Ferran Adrià before, you might not think that he'd put out a cookbook that was of any serious interest to most home cooks. He was the man behind the Spanish restaurant El Bulli for nearly twenty years and, while there, more or less revolutionized fine dining with new techniques and playful presentations. He's probably best known for his foams,  which involve familiar liquids combined with a stabilizing agent and shot through a siphon (like you'd use for whipped cream)--not really the stuff of home cooking.
Baked flan
But The Family Meal is definitely a book that home cooks should embrace. It is practical, well thought-out, accessible, and beautiful. A "family meal" in the restaurant world is the daily meal that all a restaurant's staff members sit down to and have together. And even at El Bulli, that meant simple and nourishing food. The book is organized into 31 three-course meals that were made for the staff at the restaurant. For each meal in the book, there's an ingredient list, a timeline that shows you when to start preparing what, and step-by-step directions for the dishes, each step accompanied by a photograph. There are even multiple scalings of each recipe--for serving 2, 6, 20, or 75 people. Everything is beautifully laid out and very well organized.  And the dishes themselves are pretty down to earth for the most part--lots of familiar, comforting things, like pork ribs with barbecue sauce and roast chicken, as well as restaurant classics, like Waldorf salad and pasta bolognese. (There are also a good number of more upscale and unusual dishes, including a caramel foam and a potato-chip omelet.) What makes them stand out, at least as we've found so far, are the sometimes unorthodox methods with which they're prepared. Take the risotto we made--Adrià has you add white wine to the pan before the rice goes in. In part, it's just for deglazing, but it also helped along the rice, getting it to that chalky stage at which you add the stock. It was just one little thing among others, but it made for an incredible risotto.
That said, the dish that I want to share with you today isn't Adrià's saffron risotto but his coconut flan. This dessert is one that I think every home cook should have in his or her arsenal. It's simple to prepare and can be made a few days in advance. It calls for a short list of inexpensive ingredients and can be scaled for as many people as will fit around your table. And it also happens to be marvellous.
A few bites later
My favourite moment in making it is preparing it for the table. When you tip the flan out of its ramekin, some of the dark caramel that had been at the bottom seeps out onto the plate, creating an impromptu sauce. It, like the flan's caramel crown, has a bitter edge to it and complements the coconut custard perfectly.
Like I said, things have begun to feel as though they're falling into place.

Coconut Flan
Adapted from Ferran Adrià's The Family Meal
Note: Cooking the caramel. Typically, for cooking caramel, you'd want to boil the sugar at a higher temperature, but because of just how little caramel is required for this recipe, you won't be able to control the heat of the sugar if you cook it at a higher temperature. It may be perfect when you take it off heat but burnt by the time it hits the ramekins. If you're new to cooking caramel, consider looking over these tips from David Lebovitz. Cooking times. Adrià actually instructs you to cook individual flans for 15-20 minutes, but I found that mine were still completely liquid at the 20-minute mark. I recommend checking on your flans every 5 or 10 minutes after 20 minutes have passed. In the meantime, I should really check the accuracy of my oven. Serving. In the book, Adrià bakes his flan in a long loaf pan and then serves the flan in slices. If you're cooking for a large enough crowd--I'd say, at least 15 people--you too could do away with individual ramekins and make your life easier. A round cake pan, if your crowd is a little smaller, would probably also do nicely.

18 g / 4 teaspoons water
65 g / 5 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs
145 g / 1 cup coconut milk plus more for serving
20 g / 3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes
25 g / 2 tablespoons sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Lay out four 3-inch ramekins. Put the water and sugar in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to medium. In a few minutes, the sugar will boil and start to take on colour. Adjust the heat as necessary to prevent it from burning. The caramel is ready when it is a dark, coppery colour and starts to smoke. Working quickly, divide the caramel between the ramekins--it's easiest just to pour from the saucepan directly into each--and give each ramekin a swirl so that the caramel coats its bottom evenly. Set aside to cool.
Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk until frothy. Put the coconut milk, coconut flakes, and sugar into another bowl and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Add the eggs and whisk until incorporated. Ladle the mixture into the caramel-coated ramekins.
Cover the top of each ramekin with a square of tin foil and transfer all of them to a roasting pan. Pour enough cold water into the pan to come up halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 35-45 minutes (see note above), making sure the water does not boil. Once the flan is cooked (it will be just firm to the touch), let cool in the water. Remove from the water and chill in the fridge. It will keep there covered for up to 3 days.
When ready to serve, run a small, sharp knife around the edges of each flan to loosen it from the ramekin. Gently invert onto a plate for serving. Serve each with a spoon or two of the remaining coconut milk.
Serves 4.


  1. Ah what a nice post to read, Katie. Glad things are making a way for you. However, reading the part about how grad students just can't keep taking random classes, write a big term paper at the end, then forget about it, kind of unnerved me. I know that's exactly the state I'm in, and I also know I am one of those people who hates hates hates making firm decisions and commitments to the future. As my dad likes to say, I pretend like "the gods will take care of my fate." But for some reason hearing about how things are "falling into place" for you is also really encouraging. I don't think I could go to graduate school honestly, or at least in the things I'm studying like politics and economics. It's been a real treat to be following your posts as you make your way through a philosophy graduate degree though!

    That book sounds really fun to read-- I love menu cookbooks and it sounds like it'd be a fun perspective to read. Your dinner sounds perfect! Everything about it! And these flans are beautiful. I've wanted to make flan forever (like so many other things haha), and I really like the sound of this version. Coconut and caramel, mmmmm. Bookmarking, and (one hopes) I'll actually get around to making it sooner rather than later!

    (Yikes! Sorry for the terribly long comment, Katie!)

    1. I still have difficulty imagining what it will really be like to write 200 pages with a sustained argument on one topic, to really have a fully developed and thought-out view of anything. But I think it's just the sort of thing that comes with time and experience. The reading that I've been doing lately has made me realize that there's at least a dissertation's worth of questions to be answered on this one topic (bodily self-knowledge).

      You should definitely check out the cookbook. There are a lot of dinners in there that look like they'd be fun to make. Good dinner party material--it's already so well organized.

  2. Wonderful post Katie. Loved reading about your uncertainty turning into certainty and excitement. I can only imagine the pressure of commitment that your facing. Architecture school proceeded much like undergrad, but with way less sleep and way more work, but still with classes that finished at the end of a semester.

    The flan looks wonderful, so perfectly coated with caramel. Zach loves coconut AND flan - this would pretty much be his dream dessert- so perhaps the next time we have people for dinner I'll turn to this recipe. You've also made the cookbook sound like a must-own. We are heading to the states in a couple days and my list of cookbooks to bring back is growing everyday, but what's one more?

    1. Talley, I hope this cookbook makes it back with you. It has quite a few seafood recipes, since El Bulli was located on the coast, and I know that you've been getting more adventurous with fish lately. I think that you and Zach would get a lot out of it.

  3. I really like the quoted line of "Everything has to be up in the air for anything to fall into place." I think that rings true and also goes perfectly with your post. I am glad you have found some certainty in your uncertainty. I remember my hectic grad school days and feeling the same way. Your flan looks beautiful as well. I love the simplicity in your pictures. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Allison, I'm glad to hear that this isn't just my experience. Grad school can be sort of unnerving at times. It really requires putting yourself out there and having confidence in what you're doing as worthwhile. Sometimes, you just need a little reassurance from someone you respect.

  4. I only just saw your post and wanted to thank you for sharing. I am thinking a lot about what i really want to do in my life. I love that we have so many opportunities, but then at some stage you need to decide upon something. A scary thought to me, I am still trying to find the thing that is going to keep me up at night.
    It was good to read of your journey, encouraging. I guess I just have to dig deeper and find a thing I can imagine doing for longer.

    1. Lena, I know what you mean. We're privileged in being able to choose, but that seems to make the choice all the more difficult. You'll find what you're looking for, I'm sure. It might just take a while, and it might involve some risk on your part. But that's just how it is with worthwhile things, I guess.

  5. Wonderful Katie, I have missed reading your posts.
    I was reading an article on El Bulli last week and decided I wanted to buy The Family Meal as soon as I can, so it's nice to get a sneak peek. The risotto sounds fab - I'll try the wine trick next time I make one - and these little flans look fabulous! I really want to start cooking for more than just the two of us more often, and this books seems like the perfect place to start from all that you've said.