Did you know that May is National Asian-American and Pacific Islander month? Me either! In light of this revelation, I wanted to start the month off with something special to honor my Filipino-Spanish mother.
It’s a long read, I know. Just stick with me, the story is sweet, filled with romance and there’s a great dessert at the end. Now I realize Leche Flan is a Spanish dessert. Spain had a great influence in the Philippines, and Spanish blood runs through many Filipino veins. Besides, this dessert is a big hit (almost a must have) at so many reunions on my mother’s side.
Maria Luisa was born in the Philippines in early April during the 1930s. She was the second to the youngest of sixteen children. (All the girls were named Maria, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and were known by their middle names as a means of distinction). In the picture above (left) Maria Luisa is the one is seated on her father’s lap.
Her father; Don Juan, (I kid you not) was a strapping young Spaniard who jumped ship in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war. He arrived in a foreign land without a penny to his name, and there he build an empire. As a small child, Maria Luisa knew a fairy tale life of privilege. There were maids, chauffeurs, a sprawling compound in Manila, and life was good.
Her beloved father died when she was about eight. While Maria missed him, there were older brothers, many prominent in their own right, to step in and fill the void. And there really wasn’t time for anyone to mourn since the Japanese invasion took place that same year.
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines during World War II, her world was turned up-side-down. Her family fled their beloved home in Manila and remained in hiding until the end of the war. Upon their return, they were shocked to see the devastation of Manila, but were relieved to discover that their beautiful home remained untouched in a sea of debris.
With the Japanese gone and the war over, Maria was able to become a child again. She was not the most obedient of children. She once skipped school with some of her classmates and “borrowed” her brother’s car. He was a high-ranking man within the government, as his licence plate indicated. Although Maria didn’t know how to drive, and could barely see over the steering wheel, no law enforcement officer dared to stop a car clearly associated to such an important man! That is not to say there wasn’t hell to pay at the end of her joy-ride. This rambunctious young girl was also known to roller-skate through the halls of her private school and to sneak out of Mass to sit with the men discussing politics rather than to listen to the Priest’s sermon. Maria Luisa was a free thinking, free-spirited individual.
As the girl grew into a young woman, she continued to live in a beautiful mansion, with a staff of servants to do her bidding. The tragedy of war long since faded, but hardly forgotten. Maria Luisa could have lived a life of the privilege. But that was not what the universe had in mind for her. Fate would come in the form of a handsome American. The two were destined for a different future than the life she had known.
There are two versions of how fate played out. According to Maria, her family hosted a gala event in their home. Since American diplomats were in attendance; an Airman from Clark’s Air Force Base was assigned the task of insuring their safety. It was a young GI from Oklahoma by the name of Jim who was assigned guard duty. Maria thought he was a handsome man so she invited him in, but he refused. Feeling sorry for him, standing at attention near the grand entrance, she brought him a plate of food and kept him company. The sparks between them began to fly. As fate would have it, Jim and Maria were set up on a blind date – she with a buddy of Jim’s, he with a girlfriend of Maria’s. Neither felt an attraction to their respective dates, obviously drawn to one another. It took Jim a little while to work up the courage to ask Maria out. As she recalls, “He drew circles on the ground with his foot and couldn’t even look at me as he asked me for a date.” Jim recalls a slightly different tale. It was a blind date alright, that much they agree. However; Jim’s story of their first encounter begins with the blind date. He maintains that he was not the GI she had graciously fed on the veranda that first night. Jim is certain that Maria has him confused with another of the many GIs buzzing around Paco, her family home. No matter, they met and fell in love.
At that time, it wasn’t easy for a GI to marry. Permission needed to be granted. It was the unwritten policy of the military to ship a soldier out if he asked for permission to marry a non-American while stationed in a foreign land. Jim’s commanding office rather liked the young couple and suggested that they rush the nuptials without waiting for the required permission. And so it was that they married in secret. Jim was shipped stateside shortly after the wedding. Once discharged from the service, Jim sent for Maria and they settled in California’s central valley. Maria gave up everything she knew to marry the handsome GI from Oklahoma. She settled in to her new life and became known by her Americanized name, Mary Lou.
Mary Lou knew little of the domestic duties of a wife. She had grown up in a world where servants had cleaned the home, cooked the meals and cared for the children. She learned to do all the “domestic duties” of a wife without the assistance of a staff. Mary Lou became a wonderful cook and gracious hostess in her own right. In their little community, neighbors flocked to her parties – always the best! Everyone dressed to the nines. There was food and music and dancing.
Her signature dessert was Leche Flan. Whenever I attend a pot luck family gathering of my Filipino clan, the most requested dish is my mom’s Leche Flan. Everyone agrees, Tita Mary Lou’s Leche Flan is the best! Not only is the flan itself decadent, rich and creamy, but Mary Lou’s trademark signature was the wonderful meringue topping, lightly browned under the broiler. To this day, I serve my mom’s flan with pride. Her recipe has remained unchanged, which speaks volumes in my book. Why mess with perfection?
Maria Luisa’s Leche Flan
1 Cup Sugar
3 Tablespoons Water
Melt 1 cup of sugar over medium-high heat while stirring constantly to prevent sugar from burning. Continue to cook until all the sugar has melted and is a nice golden-amber color. Pour caramel sauce into the bottom of a large baking tin. Allow sugar to cool slightly before proceeding.
Note: You will need a flan pan OR large Tin from a canned ham. The thin walls of the ham tin are ideal for making flans. I have had mine for over 30 years. My family knows not to mess with or toss out that old ham tin!
20 Egg Yolks
1 Cup Sugar
2 Teaspoons Vanilla
2 Large Cans Evaporated Milk
1 Cup Half and Half
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Fill a large casserole pan about a quarter of the way with water to create a bath. Set aside.
Beat Egg yolks slightly with a fork in a medium size bowl. Add vanilla and sugar, set aside. Scald evaporated milk and half and half in a large, heavy bottomed pan. Pour in egg mixture. Mix slowly while stirring constantly. Once mixed; remove from heat. Mixture should only remain on heat for about 1 ½ minutes – DO NOT allow eggs to cook.
For the ultimate smoothness of the flan, CAREFULLY ladle the mix through a sieve into caramel-glazed baking pan. Cover with foil and bake in a bath for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking for an additional 30 minutes or until firmly set and done in the middle.
Let custard cool in the pan for 1 hour. Invert onto oven-proof serving dish. Pour any remaining caramel from pan onto custard.
4 Egg Whites
1/2 Cup Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Cream of Tartar
Beat together ingredients for meringue topping with an electric mixer until firm peaks form. Top custard with meringue and lightly brown under broiler before serving. May be served at room temperature or cold.
UPDATE: Wondering what to do with the leftover egg whites? Check out what Mia over at Russian Filipino Kitchen has come up with – Sauteed Green Beans With Bacon and Egg Whites