Late last year, Nik told me that Filipino food is currently "having its moment". I'm not sure I believe him, but I do see signs of progress here and there. The New York Times seems like it's always writing about a hip new Filipino restaurant opening up in the city. And that Asian American cookbook focusing on Filipino fusion recipes seemed very well received by all the indie food publications. Plus, there was that groundbreaking episode in that musical show* that featured an entire Filipino family in a comedy series on network television for the first time. (Wait a second — did it really take that long?! Yikes, guys).
*FUN FACT: The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I worked as a camp counselor at a fancy summer camp with the main actress of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She won a Golden Globe in THE SAME NIGHT that I finished a Chipotle burrito all in ONE SITTING for the first time in my life. Our accomplishments are pretty even, wouldn't you say?
But it seems that with every step forward, you also have stuff like this article, which barely attempts to hide its disdain for Filipino food. How that article made it through several rounds of copyediting without being called out for being a little bit, uhmmm... kinda racist (!!!) actually escapes me (in a reputable magazine like The Economist, no less; but maybe that's not actually all that surprising.). And let's be honest – even Tony Bourdain was pretty patronizing during the No Reservations episode in Manila.
If I sound bitter about the subject, it's because I AM! Filipino food has long been shunned by the rest of the world, and I'm not exactly sure why. It's not just my heritage speaking here (and let's be honest, I'm pretty freaking American anyway), but Filipino food is damn TASTY. Because once you ignore the weird stuff that everybody else gets hung up on, you'll find that we make roast pigs like nobody else. Filipino adobo is one of my favorite foods, period. Even our breakfast game is pretty epic — where else can you eat sausages and eggs with garlic fried rice at the start of the day?
And of course, one of my favorite Filipino foods is the pretty dessert that you're seeing in all these photos: leche flan. Since the Philippines was colonized by Spain for such a long time, Spanish influences pop up in Filipino culture now and then — mostly in the Tagalog language, our surnames (I'm not Mexican, people), and sometimes, the cuisine. Filipino leche flan is one such example; it's basically a derivative of Spanish creme caramel. Both are creamy, custard desserts that hold their shape and is topped with a syrupy caramel glaze.
Filipino leche flan, however, takes Spanish creme caramel and levels it up. Like, way UP. Because while the original Spanish recipe makes the dessert with fresh milk or cream, a Filipino recipe will swap those ingredients out and opt for sweetened condensed milk instead. The sweetened condensed milk gives the flan a heavier, denser texture than regular creme caramel. It's to die for. Another change is the amount and type of eggs used in the recipe. While Spanish creme caramel only uses three to four whole eggs in a typical recipe, most Filipino leche flan recipes call for a DOZEN egg yolks (and yep, you read that right — just the yolks). Because all those yolks give the flan an incredibly creamy texture and a wonderful richness that's unique to Filipino leche flan. There's really nothing like it; it basically tastes like a light dulce de leche caramel that melts in your mouth.
So give Filipino food a try! You won't regret it. And you can start with leche flan. I won't judge. In fact, I'll love you for it.
Some baker's notes:
- Filipino leche flan recipes use slightly specialized equipment that's hard to find outside of the Philippines; a traditional Filipino recipe usually makes the leche flan in a llanera mold, a thin oval shaped pan specifically used for making flan and nothing else. That's probably not something you have lying around your kitchen, so I went ahead and baked it in a 9-inch cake pan (well, specifically, a vintage copper jello mold I found on Ebay, but a regular 9-inch cake pan should do the trick). Just make sure that the pan has sides that are at least 3-inches tall since there's actually a lot of the custard base.
- Traditional Filipino leche flan recipes also actually steam the flan to cook it; again, you'll need a big enough steamer to actually be able to hold the cake pan. I don't know about you guys, but the one steamer I have lying around is this baby, which quite frankly, won't work. You can fake a steamer by placing a wire rack in a large pan containing an inch or so of water, but that's also a lot of work. So what I did instead was bake the flan in a bain-marie; that is, I placed the cake pan inside another baking tray and filled the tray with water to make a homemade water bath. Since water can't go any temperature higher than its boiling temperature, you are assured that what you're baking bakes at a stable, low heat.
- Some traditional Filipino leche flan recipes also call for the zest of calamansi, small citrus fruit local to the Philippines that taste somewhere between a lime and a lemon. I'm pretty sure that it's really hard to find outside of Southeast Asia — even in that Kitchn link I linked to above, those huge honkers don't look like the real deal. But whatever. So instead of using calamansi zest, I went for something more accessible: orange zest. You can also substitute in lemon or lime zest, or leave it out completely. But please don't, because the caramel from the flan and the orange flavor from the fruit is an amazing combination.
- 1/2 cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons water
- 12 large egg yolks, gently whisked
- 1 3/4 cups (one 14-fluid ounce can) sweetened condensed milk
- 1 1/2 cups (one 12-fluid ounce can) evaporated milk
- fresh zest from 2 medium oranges
- a small pinch of kosher salt
- First, make the caramel. In a medium heavy bottomed pan over low heat, combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Use a heatproof rubber spatula to stir until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking the mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture turns into a light amber, almost golden color. Be sure to pay attention to the mixture! Sugar can burn surprisingly fast, and if you walk away from the stovetop, you may burn the caramel. Once the mixture turns the desired golden color, immediately pour into a 9-inch round cake pan (or mold of your choice — see baker's notes). Be sure to do so quickly, as the sugar can harden and stiffen pretty quickly. Set aside.
- Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 (F). Bring a large pot of water to boil; set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 12 egg yolks, 1 3/4 cups sweetened condensed milk, 1 1/2 cups evaporated milk, the fresh zest from 2 medium oranges, and a small pinch of kosher salt. Continue whisking until the mixture is homogenous and fully combined; it should be slightly thick, and have orange zest incorporated throughout the batter. Pour the batter into the cake pan and cover the top tightly with aluminum foil.
- Place the covered cake pan in a baking tray with high sides. Pour the boiling water (from the 2nd step) into the baking tray until water reaches halfway up the side of the cake pan. Carefully transfer to the preheated oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the sides of the flan are set but the center still wobbles just a little bit. The flan will continue to bake and set after it's pulled out the oven, so you don't want to overbake it! The center should still jiggle and wobble. You can test this by taking a butter knife and tapping the sides of the pan occasionally — unlike cakes where it's important to keep the oven door closed, flans can handle temperature changes and won't be affected if you open the oven door to check the wobble situation occasionally.
- Once the sides of the flan are set, remove the baking tray from the oven. Transfer the cake pan to a wire rack to cool completely to room temperature. Once the flan has cooled to room temperature, cover the pan with plastic wrap to chill in the refrigerator before serving, at least 1 to 2 hours, but preferably overnight.
- Once the flan has chilled and you're ready to serve the dessert, run a butter knife or offset spatula around the edges of the flan to loosen it. Place an inverted plate over the top of the cake pan and flip the two together to loosen the flan onto the plate. You might need to give the center of the cake pan a tap or two before it falls onto the plate. Garnish with any extra orange slices and zest and serve refrigerated.