Some of us can never leave well-enough alone, especially when it comes to improving on a good thing.
Cooks who subscribe to Epicurious.com and Foodnet work.com have access to lots of recipes. Theyre encouraged to rate these recipes and add comments.
But its a slippery slope when you get 150 experts opining on what a recipe lacks. Someone is always saying theres too much fat or sugar or time on the grill, then authoritatively tossing out a remedy or substitution. Its always about what worked for them, how they took a so-so recipe and made it a five-fork wonder.
It gets especially amusing when a cook writes that she substituted margarine for butter, omitted the olive oil, removed an egg yolk, and substituted dried tarragon for fresh basil and turkey for bacon. The coup de grace: This recipe is not worth the prep time or the money, so I gave it one fork, since there was no icon for no forks.
I am a passive-aggressive voyeur when it comes to these sites. I make judgmental comments about the intelligence of the reviewers, but I never use the keyboard. No point in it, since what Id say would be flagged anyway.
My favorite reviewer is from Wasilla, Alaska, way up near the Arctic Circle, where the excuse for stupidity is brain-freeze. But this baker was a Rhodes Scholar in my book. He entered his comments about a pumpkin bread recipe that was being bullied online by the culinary bourgeoisie.
I cant remember his exact words, but the rant went something like this: Rather than use either the fresh pumpkin or substituting canned pumpkin, I used orange crepe paper. The bread was dry. I wouldnt recommend it.
Wahoo! My kind of guy!!
So, when last week at the Shared Harvest potluck I tasted the best flan ever, I had to get my hands on the recipe. I was incredulous when I did not see cream or vanilla among the ingredients.
Surely you jest, I said to the flan-maker, Victoria Herrero Falk. There cannot be a worthy flan without that which causes heart attacks. Wheres the cream?
No cream, she said. Whole milk, eggs and condensed milk. Thats it.
When she said that vanilla was a Mexican addition to the original Spanish version of flan, I was ready to go to the mat.
But I tasted the vanilla, I protested.
No vanilla, she repeated.
The recipe is what her mother, Amelia Garcia, from Leon, Spain, passed down to her. Unlike crème caramel, or traditional flan, Spanish flan contains no cream or vanilla.
The dessert combines eggs with whole milk and whole, canned condensed milk. Its paired with the sweetness from a traditional caramel topping, which is placed in the bottom of the soufflé dish.
The caramel is created by cooking white table sugar over medium heat until amber caramel syrup is formed. Like all flans, egg flan is baked slowly in a waterbath (bain marie), then inverted for serving.
I decided Id test the recipe and tweak it with a teaspoon of vanilla, but first I had to get past making the caramel over which the flan filling is poured before baking.
I am no candy maker. Watching sugar go from syrup to soft-ball to whatever, has always made me uneasy, but when Victoria said it was simple, I believed her.
I shouldnt have. Four pans and eight stirring spoons later, with every shade of caramel and a mess in my kitchen, I was online searching for answers.
Heres the site that gave me the tutorial I needed: www.baking911.com. Check it out. Youll find candy-making and a lot of other baking tricks demystified. Its a good start.