Wilma and Jason's flan-tastic cookoff


POSTED: Sunday, February 22, 2009

Perhaps one of the coolest and most practical extras ever to be included with a manga are the recipes Del Rey spotlights in each volume of “;Kitchen Princess.”; They're honest-to-goodness recipes that you can cook up in your own kitchen that don't require elaborate construction skills like what those fabulous cosplay costumes entail.

OK, so maybe it's cool only for us. Wilma's a self-professed but not-quite-up-to-par cooking fanatic; Jason's idea of cooking is either to push a few buttons on the microwave or to tell someone what he wants over an intercom at the drive-thru. But the chance to pretend at being a “;Kitchen Princess”; (or “;Prince,”; too — come on, guys, no shame) and whip up some tasty-sounding dishes was just too much of a draw to pass up.

While we didn't have time to try as many recipes as we originally wanted, we figured it would be criminal to not try to make at least the dessert that started it all for series hero Najika: flan. So in the interest of being good little columnists, the two of us embarked on making our own versions of “;Flan in a Cup,”; the signature dish of the opening chapter. Making a wish that it would come out good because we wanted to see the smiles of the people who ate it, as Najika did in the manga, was purely optional. Our hope was more modest: that what resulted would just turn out to be edible.


In “;Kitchen Princess,”; a girl at Seika Academy tries to woo Daichi by giving him a flan she made in cooking class — badly made, to be more precise. After Daichi coldly rejects her offering, the girl wails, “;I can't make a hard snack like flan!”;

As I'm generally on par with that poor girl, this statement alone made me quickly dismiss the recipe from the batch I wanted to tackle, aside from the fact that flan isn't on my list of favored desserts and so I'd had no intention of making one. Then the fact that it's really THE dessert in the manga, the thing that spurred Najika's dreams, just as immediately made me want to attempt it.

The only custard I'd ever made was a creme brulee recipe printed in Star-Bulletin food writer Betty Shimabukuro's column some years back, and it came out rather well. (For that recipe for chocolate brulee, visit http://archives.starbulletin.com/2006/11/01/features/request.html.) I hoped I could somehow draw on that experience here.

Being that our dishware collection lacks the Victorian-style squat teacups that Najika uses in the manga, I went with whatever I had on hand. These turned out to be two Japanese-style teacups that resemble little bowls, and two tiny plastic cups with handles that are probably meant for toddlers.

After I heated the milk and sugar in step 1, I decided there was no way those four small containers would hold all the flan. So I went hunting and found a couple of glass dessert bowls that I prayed would not explode in the steamer in step 7, and ... a heavy soup mug decorated with characters from the anime “;Ranma 1/2.”; Desperation was indeed setting in, but I figured an anime mug was appropriate. Plus, it could serve as a test of sorts to see what kind of materials you can put flan in and still come out with a decent dessert.

As I whisked the eggs in step 2, it suddenly occurred to me from my creme brulee experience that “;eggs + lots of heat = not good.”; Whisked eggs will start cooking with the tiniest bit of heat applied, which I assume is why step 1 tells you to cool the milk for a bit before mixing with the eggs. Just to be safe, I constantly whisked the eggs as I slowly poured in the milk.

Step 3 caught me up short with its instruction to “;add some vanilla.”; What? Can't you get any more specific than that? I have no idea what vanilla extract is supposed to do in a recipe aside from providing some kind of flavoring, so I decided to go with the standard 1 teaspoon of extract.

The caramel sauce in step 5 gave the most trouble. Because the amounts of sugar and water were so small, I first used the smallest pot we had — a shallow pan normally used to make a single serving of scrambled eggs. Needless to say that first attempt ended in failure, with the water completely evaporating and leaving a pan full of hard sugar clumps.

It might not have ended that way if I hadn't kept the sauce on high heat so long. The instructions say it's done “;when it becomes brown,”; and I'd expected the sauce to be a deep, dark brown as shown in the manga and that I'd seen elsewhere. That assumption was dead. So I stirred up a second batch in a larger pot, which came out — or so I hoped. This time, I kept stirring only until the sugar was melted and the sauce was very thick, but it ended up having a very, very light brown color.

On to assembling the flan. With how little caramel sauce there turned out to be, I had doubts that it would be enough to accommodate the custard. I spooned the sauce into the four cups and swirled it around gently to cover the bottoms. Then I poured the flan in. As expected, there was more custard than could fit in the cups, but to my surprise there actually wasn't much more extra. If I'd had slightly larger cups, or a fifth similar-sized container, I could have used all the custard no problem. As it were, I filled up the cups as full as I dared and managed to leave only a tiny bit left over.

So there had been no need to go on that frantic search for more containers. Oh well. I was never very good as estimating.

Now to steam the desserts. We have a dedicated steamer, which I used. Once the water started steaming, I placed the steamer basket on top, put the cups in, put a towel under the steamer cover and covered the whole shebang. Contrary to the somewhat confusing instructions, however, I kept the stove on high for 3 minutes rather than turning off the heat. After 3 minutes, I turned off the stove, moved the cover aside for a bit, then let it sit.

Because I was engrossed in writing up this account as I waited for the steaming time to pass, I kept the flan in for 10 minutes longer than the suggested limit of 15 minutes. When I finally hopped up and carefully removed the steamer lid, I was disappointed to see the custard still jiggling as though the liquid hadn't solidified at all. I poked a toothpick in one and was surprised to find it was relatively solid. It also surprised me to find that no liquid poured out, which according to the recipe meant the flan was done. Could it really be?

Not quite. The reason liquid wasn't coming out of the hole I'd poked was because the whole thing WAS still liquid. At least, the flan in the handled cups was fluid — the Japanese bowls seemed fine. (Perhaps because those had a larger surface area on top and are slightly shallower?) I put the two handled cups back and repeated the steaming instructions a second time, and this time they solidified. How that will affect the taste and texture of the dessert, I guess we'll find out later.

As the cups were cooling, I looked up flan recipes online. One site was particularly helpful for the pictures it showed at each step, and I saw the proper way the caramel sauce was supposed to look like.

To satisfy my curiosity on that point, I cooked up a third batch of caramel sauce using that site's instructions, this time not stirring and simply watching the pot boil. Lo and behold, the coveted deep brown color started bubbling up within 3 to 4 minutes. The caveat: Remove it from heat the instant you see that dark color or you will burn the sauce, as I discovered firsthand. So my problem wasn't that I had kept the heat on too long as I'd originally thought, but that I didn't keep it on long enough.

And for a cleanup tip, immediately soak the pot in hot water and soap and wash it out once you're done pouring out the sauce, or else the caramel will harden and you'll have a devil of a time getting it clean. (If you do let it sit too long, just put some water in the pot and heat it up on the stove to soften the caramel. I used a wooden spoon to then get all the hardened sauce off the sides of the pot.)

The verdict? I'm not sure if Najika's recipe — or at least the instructions as written in the manga — is one for first-time flan makers to try. Flan really is by all accounts a difficult dessert to make, especially since we don't have Najika's magical presence to guide us through. Being that I'd had some experience with custard, I could handle most of the steps. But for beginning chefs, I suggest augmenting Najika's recipes with some online research or seeking help from more experienced bakers before trying them out.


“;Najika's special flan is made by pouring it in a teacup,”; the smiling, winking Najika face told me on the recipe page. “;Metal flan cups conduct heat and are hard to manage. Making the flan in plastic is easier and it will come out prettier!”;

Fair enough, I reasoned. So in my quest to make Najika's flan, my first task apparently would be to find the right cups. Not just any old cups in my cupboard would do ... they had to be special cups, ones worthy of the sparkly, flowery backgrounds that fill the pages of “;Kitchen Princess.”;

And then I remembered: I'm a guy. Guys are more concerned with function than form. So one quick trip to a nearby thrift store later, I had a set of four perfectly functional plastic cups that I suppose could be used as teacups but which I'll probably end up using to drink orange juice in the morning. (Plus they were on sale for $2 for the set. Bargains are always appreciated.)

With that task accomplished, it was time to look over the recipe. Several instructions struck me as a bit odd right off the bat. The recipe called for “;a little bit of vanilla,”; something that threw my exact-measurement-mindset into a tizzy. What's a little bit? A drop? A dash? Half the bottle? If anything would throw off my future flan, it would likely be that. Then there was the matter of making the caramel sauce in a small pot ... with three tablespoons of sugar and a tablespoon of water. I had visions of caramel sauce stuck to the bottom of the pot and me having to grab a chisel to get it off there and into the cups.

Caramel-making, as it turned out, was the most harrowing part of the entire process. You have to understand that I've never made caramel before. So to have the instructions of throwing sugar and water into a pot and stirring until the mixture turned brown, then doing so only to have the mixture steam and bubble and do pretty much everything except turning brown as I'm frantically stirring, had me sweating with worry over whether I was doing things right. (Or maybe that was just because I was working over a hot stove.) When it finally turned brown, it turned rather quickly, to the point where I feared I might've overcooked it. While it was still liquid enough for me to quickly pour some into the four cups, what I tasted after the mass had solidified on the bottom of the pot (time to get out that chisel!) seemed slightly burnt. Ahh, well, it wasn't bad for a first try.

All things considered, though, the steps went rather smoothly. When it came time to add in that indeterminate amount of vanilla, I just flicked the bottle over my mixture and hoped whatever landed in there would be enough. The egg/milk/sugar mixture didn't seem very smooth and custard-like when I initially blended it, with bits of raw egg evident floating throughout the mixture. Pouring the mixture through a strainer as the recipe suggested eliminated those specks and eased my worries on that front.

And then came the second-to-last step, steaming the flan until it was set in each of the cups. The recipe stated that the cups should be left in the steamer at high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, then on lower heat for 13 to 15 minutes. I interpreted the instructions as meaning I should bring the steamer down to the lowest heat setting.

Fifty-two minutes later, with four defiant mixtures still sitting in their cups taunting me with their still-liquid forms, I decided to repeat the process once more, taking the temperature back up to high and then lowering it to a setting that was a little higher than “;low.”; That did the trick ... albeit after another 30 minutes of waiting. Suffice it to say the flan wasn't the only thing that was steamed by the end of the exercise. It just went to prove the standard cookbook disclaimer, strangely absent here, that cooking times may vary depending on the type of stove used. Either that, or it proved that I'm woefully inexperienced at making flan.

I was generally pleased with what emerged from the steamer. The amount of time it took to cook the flan, though, ended up distorting the shape of one of the cups. Would I recommend making this recipe to cooking neophytes like me? Probably not ... it seems deceptively easy at the outset, but it seems to me that a bit of cooking experience would be helpful, particularly in the latter steps.


When we brought the fruits of our labor into the office the next day for picture-taking and sampling, we also brought in some actual fruits, as well as whipped cream. The recipe noted, “;Top it with whipped cream or fruit and it'll be GOOD!!”; and there's no denying the compelling power of something written in CAPITAL LETTERS and punctuated with two exclamation points. Wilma brought the blueberries and strawberries; Jason brought maraschino cherries.

After our photo prepress specialist, Christina Chun, shot some pictures, we handed several samples over to her. When she didn't keel over dead or collapse writhing in agony right away, we knew that what we had created was, indeed, edible. Success!

We had our criticisms of our own work. Wilma felt her flan, while appearing to be solid on the top, was still rather liquidy and not as solid as she expected it to be, disappointing her. Jason's flan was more solid throughout — after close to 90 minutes of waiting, he reasoned, they'd better have been good and solid — but the caramel mixture was as he had feared, overcooked and slightly bitter to taste.

All things considered, though, they came out well for two people relatively inexperienced in flan-making. As for those cups of flan pictured throughout this essay? They've been totally emptied, a happy memory for those who ate it.