When the weather cools, I bring the bold, bright, and lively teas to the front of the tea cabinet. Malty Assams speak to me at this time of the year. Their warm honeyed notes also inspire me at meal’s end, especially to flavor an egg-rich – but not eggy – flan, one of the simplest and most satisfying desserts – the ultimate comfort food for these stressful times. For the Flan Thé that follows, I like to add some premium-quality leaf to infuse the milk, along with a fragrant, flexible vanilla bean and some seasonal citrus peel (yes, citrus fruit does have a season and it is now).
Cuisines from Spain, Portugal, France, Mexico, and much of Central and South America feature variations of this homey dessert, usually flavored with vanilla, though coffee, chocolate, and aromatic spices such as cinnamon, star anise, and cloves announce their welcome presence from time and time. Even in China and other parts of Asia, where milk and dairy are traditionally little used, there are memorable versions or adaptations. The delicious dan ta custard tart that ends a Chinese dim sum meal is just one example. Another is Japan’s bento-box favorite, tamagoyaki, a rolled, sweetened omelet that pairs eggs with sugar, though it usually appears during the meal and not at the end. In both of these, the tea would be an accompaniment rather than an ingredient flavoring the sweet dish.
Definitely a make-ahead dessert, flan – that is, baked custard – is an uncomplicated, but almost universally appealing, sweet. When complexed with the flavor of your favorite tea, the dessert experience is even more hauntingly delicious. And bowing to tea lovers further, I like to serve this doused in a tea-flavored caramel sauce.
Yield: 2 servings – the recipe may be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, as you wish
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Half fill a 2- to 3-inch-deep baking pan with water. Place it on a rack halfway up from the bottom of the oven. Now line the molds with caramel.
To line the molds with caramel:
3 ounces (1/3 cup) granulated sugar
In a heavy saucepan, cook the sugar until it is richly tea colored. Wearing heatproof mitts, carefully pour the caramel into heatproof ramekins or other individual serving-size vessels (5-ounce capacity each), swirling the mixture to coat the insides of the ramekins evenly. Set aside to cool.
To infuse the milk for the flans:
10 ounces milk (anything from lowfat to whole milk will work here; fat is the carrier of flavor, so don’t use nonfat milk since it won’t be successfully infused with the tea, vanilla, and citrus peel flavors)
1 vanilla bean (it should be flexible and moist), split lengthwise
Approximately 1 ounce of the peel, without the bitter white pith, from 1 brightly colored orange or tangerine
In a heavy saucepan, simmer the milk for about 10 minutes with the vanilla and citrus peel. Remove from the heat and allow the liquid to infuse for about 15 minutes. Sieve the liquid and return it to a clean saucepan.
1 whole large egg
1 egg yolk, from 1 large egg
2 ounces (scant 1/3 cup) superfine granulated sugar
¼ ounce (scant 2 T.) premium-quality Assam tea leaves
Using a wooden spoon or spatula, blend the egg, egg yolk, and sugar in a heatproof bowl. Stir, without aerating, until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
To the infused milk, add the tea leaves and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and allow to infuse until the tea flavor is clearly perceptible, about 5 minutes. Pour the liquid through a fine sieve into the bowl containing the egg, egg yolk, and sugar. Mix to blend well, without aerating, and now place each of the caramel-lined molds into the hot water bath in the oven. The hot water should reach halfway up the sides of the molds. If it does not, add enough more hot water until it does. Using a pitcher, carefully pour the flan mixture into the molds and bake for approximately one hour, or until set (when done, the mixture should feel firm on the top, but jiggle some when the molds are gently shaken). When done, carefully remove the flans from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. When cooled, cover them and place them into the refrigerator, until fully chilled, or overnight.
To make the tea-infused caramel sauce:
4 ounces strongly brewed Assam tea
3 ounces (1/3 cup) granulated sugar
Brew the tea until fragrant, but not tannic, about 3 minutes. Decant the liquid and keep hot. In a heavy saucepan, cook the sugar, without stirring, until deep golden brown, but not burned.
Carefully add the hot brewed tea liquid and stir until it is well blended. Remove from the heat. When cool, place into a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate until cold.
To serve the flans:
Run a small knife along the edge of the ramekins to help release the flans. Invert onto serving plates. Serve with the tea-infused caramel sauce and, if desired, accompany the custards with a wedge of crispy shortbread or a thin wafer cookie of your choice.