A lot of the cuisine I've grown up with is an amalgamation of this cultural absorption. Having grown up on the edge of Portuguese ruled Goa and with a strong 'Western' influence on food, a lot of what we ate was the Indianised version of Portuguese, British or French cuisine. Vindalho, for example or jhalfrezi.
There were, and are, some dishes though that were a unique combination of the person making them, and traditional European classics. This nutmeg flan - a specialty of my mom's - is one of them. When I first decided to make it myself, I remember asking my mom where she got the recipe. She shrugged and said, nowhere. It was one of those recipes which she probably ate at a friends' place, and then recreated it at home, using her own memories of the dish.
This is an interesting aspect of cooking, for me. I grew up with instinctive cooking, yet over the years I have learned to follow recipes and techniques to come up with perfect dishes. Not to say that my cooking isn't good, but I must admit that sometimes I miss the instinctiveness of food, where you grab a glance inside the refrigerator and make a dish based on what you find there. The way my mom usually cooks. The best part about this kind of cooking is the modifications that individual cooks make to their own cooking. My Aunt Helen, for example, uses milk soaked bread in this same pudding - mimicking a classic bread and butter pudding, whereas my mum keeps it very simple with just milk, eggs, sugar and nutmeg, which is more reminiscent of a Mexican or a Vietnamese style of flan.
For me, this dish is the essence of my childhood. Despite its simplicity, Mum only made this for special occasions - or when she had some time off school.
My sister and I were always sent out to get fresh milk very early in the morning on most weekdays, and Saturdays in particular. Mum had Saturdays off, while we had a half day of school. We got our milk and eggs from the local nunnery, a cloistered convent. My sister and I would stand outside a heavy wooden door waiting for Sister Laetitia, who was the spokesperson for the order and the only nun who was allowed outside the order. Sister Laetitia would poke her head out at us, smile an incredibly sweet smile, and ask us about school, our mom, our aunts. Small talk over, she would then hand over cans of fresh milk, thick and warm with a delicate yellow layer of cream on top. On the way back, sister and I would grumble constantly at the weight of the milk, each trying to pawn the heavy can on to the other.
Once home, we were dispatched to get ready for school, while mum carefully skimmed off the cream (she used it to make fresh butter) and then heated the milk for our milky coffees. Coffee and breakfast done, we headed off to school, while mum caught up with life. We would be back in the afternoons, and we were always threatened into bed for naps, despite protests. We did nap though, because we knew that when we woke up the house would be fragrant with a medley of aromas... and my favourite one of all, the smell of freshly grated nutmeg, which meant that mum had made this amazing pudding.
The nutmeg were also from our garden. We were dispatched up skinny, dangerously listing ladders to pick this delicious spice, covered in it's lacy red-orange mace. The mace was dried for use in garam masala, while the nutmeg was broken up to use in various other preparations, including this flan.
Mum called her flan a 'custard' and unlike crème brûlée or creme caramel, it is not baked, but steamed (I suspect because we didn't have an oven.) When I asked mom for the recipe, she, surprisingly for her, gave me fairly precise quantities. I played around a bit until I got the proportions right.
The original melt-in-your-mouth texture of this pudding was from mum using just whole milk, rather than adding cream, but I do like the richer texture that I get from using a dash of cream in my own recipe. The caramel syrup is also interesting - it is similar to the caramel used in creme caramel, but not as dark and is made separately, before being poured over the flan. This flan can't handle being flipped, as it is extremely delicate. I like to serve it in small ramekins, but you can also make it in a glass pie dish, and scoop out generous portions into bowls. There is a lot of nutmeg in this dish, it is not for the faint of heart. The nutmeg adds its characteristic fragrance, but also a distinctive bitterness that makes this flan truly unforgettable.
One bite of this creamy, melting, lightly sweet, slightly bitter pudding transports me straight back to those sunny afternoons, waking up to the fragrance of nutmeg and caramel, racing into the kitchen to scoop out the first bite (without even letting it cool down a bit) It reminds me of all my school achievements, which are indelibly nuanced with the flavour of this flan. It is the taste of small victories, of carefree warm sunny days and my mum at home... and comfort food, at its very best.
1½ cups (375 ml) whole milk
½ cup half and half (10% cream) or heavy cream
½ cup sugar, divided
½ of a whole nutmeg
½ cup water, divided
Place the milk and cream in a large bowl, and stir in ¼ cup sugar. Whisk gently, until the sugar dissolves. Add the eggs, and beat until creamy.
Grate about 1 teaspoon of fresh nutmeg into this mixture, and whisk well. Pour into a heatproof glass pie dish (or into 4 ramekins).
Place a heatproof trivet in a large pot, and place the pie dish or ramekins on top. Gently pour in enough boiling water, so it just touches the bottom of the pie dish. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid, and steam the flan for 30 minutes, until it is set, but with a wobbly middle.
While the flan is steaming, make the caramel syrup. Place the remaining sugar in a heavy based pan, and gently sprinkle over the ¼ cup water. Place on a medium heat, and simmer gently until the sugar melts into a sticky golden brown caramel (watch it carefully and don't let it burn). Take off the heat and stir in the remaining water, until you have a thin, caramelly syrup.
When the flan is done, gently run a sharp knife around the edges. Pour in the caramel syrup around the edges, so the flan is soaked in the syrup.
Serve the flan warm, at room temperature or chilled.