“The leftover yolks in leche flan were from the egg whites used as cement for stone walls when churches were built.” This was the theory of many historians on the leche flan’s origins in the Philippines in the 16th century, during the Spanish colonial era.
In the novel “Noli Me Tangere” by Jose Rizal, a Philippine national hero, I imagined leche flan, a custard with a caramel topping, was the dessert served at the fictional party of Kapitan Tiago to welcome Ibarra, who returned to the Philippines after 7 years in Europe. This novel’s setting was in the 1800s, when the Philippines was a colony of Spain. Rizal wrote the Noli during exile years in Europe. He was a doctor, a teacher, a political leader and his writings illustrated his fierce love of his country, the Philippines, while challenging the colonial rule of Spain.
It was said that Rizal wrote the Noli as a tribute to the love of his life, Leonor Rivera, a former sweetheart. Rizal’s extreme stance against the Spanish colonizers and his outspoken ways did not go well for Leonor’s conservative family. Thus, a heartbroken Leonor ended her relationship with Rizal and eventually married somebody else– an Englishman named Charles Kipping.
In the novel, Noli, one of the central characters is a lass named Maria Clara. Rizal’s description of her delicate beauty and demure ways were so realistic, that many believed when he wrote this , he was describing his ex-sweetheart, Leonor.
Old cookbooks on my shelves, which I brought from the Philippines ( belonging to my late mother) prominently talk about flan being around during Spain’s colonial rule which lasted over 300 years. It is no wonder the strong imprint of Spanish flavors are obvious on many Filipino dishes like this leche flan.
On another note, while we’re discussing a story (the Noli) within a story (the origins of flan), I actually got to touch and flip the pages of the real, original copy of the “Noli Me Tangere” which Rizal gifted Leonor. He even signed it with a dedication to her.
When I went back to the Philippines last year, I visited my home province, Tarlac. While there, I met up with my cousin, Dr. Maria Lourdes Kipping, who is the great granddaughter of Leonor Rivera. Ilou as we call her, opened the family’s ancestral home in Camiling, Tarlac which was the home of Leonor. The home was about 75 miles north of Manila, the country’s capital. While at the Kippings’, I was privileged to see the private collection of their great grandmother, Leonor Rivera Kipping. I ran my fingers on the ivory keys of her antique baby grand piano, marveled at her leather bound, classic literature novels (written in Spanish) – and most importantly, held the Noli in my hand, while I gingerly ran my finger across Rizal’s handwriting. I felt transported in time, like I was the heroine, Maria Clara.
The ill-fated true to life love story of Leonor Rivera and Jose Rizal is timeless and has stayed in Philippine history books ever since. Just as memorable is the fictional character Maria Clara, a tribute of the author to his sweetheart, the ‘one that got away’.
Leche Flan and its Philippine Origins
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar for caramel syrup
- 8 eggyolks
- 1 can (12 fl oz./354 ml) evaporated milk
- 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Cook the caramel topping: Using a medium sized heavy stock pot. Add the sugar to the stockpot. Place the pot over medium heat. Keep a close watch over the sugar. It will take about 5 minutes for the sugar to start to bubble at the edges, gradually turning amber colored all over. Tilt the pan around to level off the caramel syrup. Work quickly and pour the caramel syrup in a prepared loaf pan measuring 9 x 5 inches (or use a round 9-inch in diameter cake pan). Set the caramel in the loaf pan aside while you prepare the custard.
- How to make the custard: In a large mixing bowl, separate the egg yolks from the whites. Keep the whites in a covered container and refrigerate for another recipe. Whisk the yolks gently for a few minutes.
- Into the same bowl of yolks, add the evaporated milk, condensed milk and pure vanilla extract. Blend the ingredients well by hand, using a wire whisk. Do the mixing for less than 5 minutes. You do not want too many bubbles in your flan.
- Using a sieve or strainer, pour the custard mixture into the loaf pan lined with caramel. It is important to use a sieve so you have a smooth textured flan. Cover the entire pan with foil and seal the edges all around.
- In a preheated oven of 325 F degrees, place a large deep baking pan (larger than the loaf pan). Add enough water to fill up the large baking pan halfway full. Place the foil covered loaf pan with the custard and caramel in the center of the larger baking pan. This is called a water bath or ‘bain marie’ or else ‘bano maria’ way of cooking. This method is preferred if cooking with a caramel topping and a custard like this one.
- Bake in the 325 F degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes. Test the custard if it is done by inserting a thin knife in the center. If knife comes clean, it is done.
- Remove the flan from the oven and cool on the counter for an hour. Then refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
- To serve : run a sharp knife around the sides of the flan to loosen up. Prepare a large rectangle sized platter (larger than the flan) and put it over the flan container. Hold the bottom of the flan container firmly with one hand. Hold the bottom of the platter well with the other hand. Turn over the flan on the platter. The syrup will run and flow around the custard. Slice in thin slivers to serve (each thin slice is packed with thousands of rich calories, so go easy).
- Cook's comments: our family prefers flan flavored with vanilla extract. But in the Philippines, the original flan versions are flavored with the zest of local lime called 'dayap', which has been abundant since the 16th century.
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