While most people receive gifts with anticipation and enthusiasm, Jay does so with vociferous griping and grumbling.
At first I considered this a personal eccentricity, but after spending seven present-less Christmases with his family, I’ve learned that it is more of a minimalist-induced lifestyle choice, and I’ve come to enjoy the lack of shopping-induced stress around birthdays and other significant days of the year.
While opting out of the Meaningless Spending Frenzy each December can be liberating, it does make for a rather austere holiday season.
Which is why I’m glad some folks in my family still feel that it’s better to give than to receive.
On a camping trip last weekend, my sister brought us a pumpkin for decoration and plunked it down on our (fairly small) folding table. Jay characteristically kvetched about the space it took up and having to schlepp it back to the bay area, but I appreciated the gesture and asked whether it was strictly a deco pumpkin or whether it might be edible.
‘Well, it had a pie recipe stuck to the bottom,’ my sister replied by way of explanation.
Two more baby pumpkins arrived in our box the following Wednesday, and I sliced and roasted them all in anticipation of making pumpkin flans inspired by a recipe I clipped from Chow’s brief yet glorious stint as a paper magazine several years ago. While pumpkins make perfectly lovely decor, I usually eschew them in favor of more reliable butternuts, hokkaidos and kabochas, as their flesh can be stringy and bland. But when I tasted the sweet, dense flesh of the pumpkin my sister had gifted us, the pumpkin mania which consumes Americans this time of year finally made sense.
Sadly, the two baby pumpkins tasted like slightly bitter nothingness and were banished to the pumpkin patch in the sky (compost bin).
Thankful for the gifted pumpkin, I pureed the orange flesh with eggs and sugar, then poured in a mixture of heavy cream and half and half in which I’d steeped vanilla bean, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cloves and allspice berries. I coated some ramekins with a simple caramel, and baked the flans in a water bath.
Coated in a nappe of liquid caramel, flecked with vanilla bean and freshly grated nutmeg, the flans convey all the spicy, warming flavors of a pumpkin pie, only more creamy, delicate and sophisticated. They make a clever dinner party dessert as they can be baked up to several days ahead upon which they merely get turned out onto plates or shallow bowls. In fact, the more the flans chill, the more the caramel absorbs moisture from the custard and liquifies into a sauce. For this reason, they must be made at least four hours (and preferably at least 1 day) in advance of serving.
These flans need no embellishment, but they can be garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds or served with a side of crispy gingersnaps. Or make a deconstructed pumpkin pie and serve the flans inverted into baby tart shells, or garnished with pate brisee cutouts.
After dance class last Friday, my sister, niece, Jay and I all retired to our apartment for dessert. I was glad my sister got to taste the fruits (or vegetable, as it were) of her pumpkin-purchasing labors.
Giving a pumpkin and receiving back this flan seems like a mighty good deal to me; one that even Jay was able to enjoy.
Inspired by Chow
Makes six 6-ounce, or eight 4-ounce flans
To roast your own winter squash, slice a 1-pound squash (pumpkin, butternut, kabocha, etc.) lengthwise with a sturdy chef’s knife. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet, and place the squash, cut-side down, on the sheet. Bake at 400º until very tender when pierced with a knife, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool until handleable, scoop out the seeds and strings and discard. Scoop out the flesh and measure out 1 cup. Extra squash can be eaten as is, perhaps with a bit of butter and salt.
I usually use organic turbinado sugar for baking, but the large crystals make it prone to crystallizing when making caramel. Super-fine white sugar is thus my choice for the caramel in this recipe.
I baked six flans in 3/4 cup ramekins, but for smaller flans, you could bake these in eight 1/2-cup oven-safe cappuccino cups.
1 cup packed roasted pumpkin or winter squash flesh (or canned pumpkin)
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 3″ cinnamon sticks
4 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
4 whole cloves
6 allspice berries
3/4 cup half and half
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
toasted pumpkin seeds for garnish (optional)
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup sugar (preferably super-fine)
Combine the vanilla pod and seeds, spices, half and half and heavy cream in a small saucepan. Heat over a medium flame until small bubbles appear around the edge of the pan and the mixture is steaming. Turn off the heat, cover and steep for 30 minutes.
While the dairy steeps, make the caramel:
Place 6 six-ounce ramekins in a roasting or lasagna pan and set aside. Place 2 tablespoons of water in a small saucepan. Pour the sugar into the center of the water, and gently moisten with your fingers. Brush down any sugar crystals that end up on the side of the pot. Place over medium heat and cook, without disturbing, until the mixture turns a deep amber, brushing down the sides of the pot if the sugar begins to crystalize. Immediately divide the caramel evenly among the bottoms of the ramekins and quickly swirl to coat the bottoms. Set aside. (Tip: to easily clean the pot, fill with hot water and boil until all the caramel dissolves.)
Position a rack in the center of the oven with no racks above it and preheat to 300º. Bring a kettle of water to a boil.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the squash puree, 1/2 cup sugar, eggs, nutmeg and salt. Puree until very smooth. Strain the dairy into the bowl of the food processor and blend to combine. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois and into a 4-cup measuring pitcher, working the mixture through with a rubber spatula. You should have about 4 cups of batter. (The mixture can be kept, chilled, for a few days.)
Divide the mixture among the ramekins, filling them 1/4 – 1/2″ below the top. Cover the roasting pan tightly with a piece of aluminum foil and pierce with a knife in a few places. Place the pan on the oven rack, peel back a corner of the foil, and carefully pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Re-cover with the foil and close the oven door.
Bake the flans until slightly puffed and set when jiggled, 30 – 40 minutes (longer of the mixture was chilled before baking.) You don’t want them to wiggle wetly at all in the center. Remove carefully from the oven, uncover, and use a pair of tongs to remove the ramekins from the water bath. Let the flans cool for about 30 minutes, then chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight, or up to 4 days.
To serve, run a thin knife around the inside of a ramekin and invert onto a small plate or shallow bowl. Grasp the ramekin and plate in both hands and jiggle firmly a few times in a downward manner until the flan releases. Garnish with a few pumpkin seeds, if you like.