Coconut Milk Mexican Flan |

I go to used bookstores for the same reason I look into windows when we’re driving down residential streets at night: I like to imagine the people inside. The same way I fix my gaze on the warm glow of a table illuminated by candlelight or the man who’s sitting in his recliner all alone, I pick up a hardcover, tracing over the handwriting, wondering about the person who underlined that passage or the reader who signed her name in this front flap.

This might be what I love about the first-edition copy of The Art of Mexican Cooking, written by Jan Aaron and Georgine Sachs Salom, that I found at McKay Used Book Store Friday Night. Published in 1965, this beauty has all the earmarks of another era, one in which American women still wore skirts and aprons to make dinner and in which Mexican food (along with other ethnic cuisines) was just beginning to enter the conversation.

Art of Mexican Cooking |

There are hand-drawn illustrations at the division pages, created by artist Dierdre Stanforth, the same woman who did illustrations for a Betty Crocker cookbook two years later and for books on New Orleans after that. I’d never thought much about book illustrations until recently, when we went and made an ebook and hired the amazing Rebekka Seale to create the cover—now I notice them everywhere I look: on blogs, on Pinterest, when I’m flipping through the thick pages of my new vintage book.

Over the last few nights, reading The Art of Mexican Cooking before bed, usually out loud to Tim, along with continually remarking that “This entire recipe is a paragraph! One paragraph! These directions kill me!,” I’ve also been thinking about the woman who drew the maps in the front and back pages and who sketched two large pots of soup in front of Mexican tiling.

What was it like to be an illustrator in the 1960s, I wonder. Long before there were Etsy shops or blogs or Anthropologie, what was it like to make your living through your art?

Flan mixture + eggs |

So of course I did what any self-employed copywriting female does in the year 2012: I turned to Google. Through Internet research, I’ve learned that Stanforth, originally from New Orleans, settled in New York, where she was living when she illustrated this book, right around the time that she picketed historic buildings being torn down. In an interview with The New York Preservation Archive Project, she describes loving a building she was living in, with its “marble stairs and parquet floors,” and that makes me imagine her to be a little like me, someone who craves beauty, who feels inspired by it.

Sugar-Bottomed Ramekins |

I imagine you all to be a little like me, too, honestly, even though, actually, I don’t know if you’re like me. You know much more about me than I do about you. While you get to peep in through my open windows, so to speak, or notice my handwriting in the margins of the book, I’m aware of only the fact that you’re there, not when or why or how. It’s kind of a funny thing.

Flan Custard |

What a world we live in, where I can notice an illustrator’s name and go to Google and form a caricature of her in my mind; where we can go to blogs or Facebook pages and build impressions or stories about others in our heads.

Prebaked vs Baked Flans |

Tim and I listened to a lecture a few months ago where we heard the speaker say about humans, “We are all incredibly complex.” He continued to explain that while we are all, yes, our personalities and, yes, our upbringings and, yes, our families and our work and our passions, we are all, always, always, more than that, too.

For a person who wants to make the world clearer and easier to understand, that’s somewhat discouraging news: My impressions are, almost always, limited. The way I understand something can, almost always, be expanded into a fuller way of seeing it. Everyone is so complex! Everything is so complex!

flan |
Flan |

But then, for someone who craves beauty, who recognizes it in the vulnerability of love, something she can’t quite explain; in story, that thing children tell as soon as they can talk; in food and in the complexity of ingredients coming together to form miniature flans, jiggly and sweet, the smell of burnt sugar in the air, seeing that things are, in fact, more than we see is a comfort, too.

Because when you are more complex than I realize, that means there is more of you to know. And when I see I don’t know all there is, that means there is still more to discover. There are deeper levels of love, better ways of knowing, fuller understanding, more truth.

There is always beauty yet to be found.

Coconut Milk Mexican Flan
Heavily adapted from The Art of Mexican Cooking by Jan Aaron & Georgine Sachs Salom
Makes five four-inch-round flan desserts

Note that this recipe’s sugar quotient is flexible. We used 1/2 cup and liked the results, but we tend to like things less sweet—if you’re at all in doubt, probably go with 3/4 cup.

Oh and also, you would not believe the difference chilling a few hours makes. In typical fashion, we went ahead and tasted the flan 30 minutes after baking; it wasn’t bad. But the next day, after sitting in the fridge? Ten times better.

2 13.5-ounce cans full-fat organic coconut milk
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup coconut palm sugar, plus more for sprinkling in ramekins
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
The zest of a lemon
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 egg whites, lightly beaten

Heat oven to 350F. Take five four-inch-round porcelain ramekins and sprinkle a little sugar in the bottom of each. Place them in the oven until sugar begins to liquify (which, for me, was about as long as it took to pull everything else together).

Meanwhile, in a pot over low heat, combine coconut milk, sugar, cinnamon, salt, vanilla and lemon zest, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens/reduces a little. I did this for around 20 to 30 minutes. The original recipe said the mixture would seem like custard; mine just seemed like it was going to keep reducing (and disappear!) if I didn’t pull it off the heat quick. (It had probably reduced by 1/4 to 1/2 in size) If the ramekins are ready by this point, remove them from the oven and reduce the oven temp to 300F. You can leave the sugar the way it is in each dish, or you can take a spoon or paper towel and spread it around to make an even layer.

Remove the custard from the heat, and let it cool a while. Once it’s about room temperature, combine the lightly beaten egg yolks and whites with each other, and then combine them with the custard. Divide the batter among the five ramekins and place them in a large baking dish. Fill the dish with hot water and bake the flans for about an hour.

Custards are done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Chill for a few hours before eating (see note!). Flan may be eaten straight out of the ramekin or, after you run a butter knife around the edges, inverted onto a plate.

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, via Instagram or through the blog's Facebook page.

This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. Kathryn

    I love how you weave together different strands of thought into one post that, as ever, gives me so much to think about it. And then give us some beautiful pictures and a delicious recipe. Perfect!

    1. Shanna Mallon

      Ha! Maybe I unintentionally wrote in a complex way to show how complex everything is! Thanks for wading through it all and giving such a generous response once you did. Ever grateful for you, Kathryn!

  2. ami

    Wow You know what I have been longing to try my hands at flan one of these days and I think you motivated me :)

    1. Shanna Mallon

      Do it!

  3. Tim

    Love it and love you. Also, if you are thinking about eating that last flan in the fridge and want to save me some, that would totally be cool.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      You are too good to be true.

  4. jaime @ sweet road

    Coconut milk sounds delicious. I can’t believe I had never thought of that!

  5. Jacqui

    There you go again. Your words get me. every. time.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      oh, you.

  6. Inês Oliveira

    What a perfect flan texture, and the flavor must be amazing! A good one going straight to my Christmas checklist!

  7. Erin

    What an interesting book! I love little treasures like that.
    You’re making me think about trying to make flan sometime…I tried it once years ago and it was a disaster! But I think I know my way around the kitchen a little more now. :)

  8. Kim

    I have fallen head over heels for your writing as of late and this really sealed the deal. I, too, am a curious person when it comes to the lives of others.

    Recently at a used book sale, I picked up a wooden bound volume, with handwritten notes in English and Finnish to a woman living in Rolla, ND. Turns out it was her visitation book for when friends and visitors came to stay with her. The messages range from long to extremely short, sometimes only a sentence long and sometimes a whole page recounting what they did that day. I’ve been trying to find out more about her, how she got there, and what the things in Finnish say.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      Kim! What a great find! I love that you’re investigating her after finding the book — kindred spirit.

  9. Jann

    Oh. My. Gosh. I look in windows at night, too! No…I’m not a peeping Tom…just a passerby wondering the same things you are wondering. I bet you love airports, too. So many stories. My favorite fantasy is to be able to stop random people in some busy place and ask them about themselves…what are they worried about, what does their family look like, their home, what are their passions, what do they want to be when they grow up…every person is the center of their vast universe…and I’m not even one tiny part of it! It’s incredible! I think blogs are a bit like that. I love yours. Your writing is very enjoyable and feels honest. And I’ve tried several of the recipes with great results. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Shanna Mallon

      haha, you’d fit in around here, Jann! I know just what you’re talking about with wanting to ask people millions of questions. Tim always says (I think he’s quoting someone) that there is an ocean inside people. It’s such an amazing thought.

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  11. Paula @ Vintage Kitchen

    Complexity is everywhere and I agree that it makes things and people so much more interesting. I always think how people usually have such great life stories to tell, even when they look like they´re living a simple life. Just like food, the simpler recipes are usually the most complex ones.
    These flans are beautiful! I don´t even unmold them before they´ve been at least a day in the fridge.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      I like that line, “Just like food, the simpler recipes are usually the most complex ones.”

      YES. because even in simplicity there is complexity.

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