Flan with bienmesabe crust and cardamom and buttermilk whipped cream

Flan with bienmesabe crust and cardamom whipped cream
Flan with bienmesabe crust and cardamom buttermilk whipped cream
This probably won’t surprise anyone, but let me come out and say it. I don’t agree with all the gluten free propaganda out there. If you have a condition, then yes, by all means avoid it, but if not, then I don’t want to hear it!

That said, my first reaction when targeting gluten free desserts is not to rework recipes to eliminate the gluten, but to look at recipes that are already gluten free and use them as a starting point. There are many of these recipes throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Bienmesabe canario is one of these great recipes. Its a traditional dessert of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. This dessert dates back to the 15th century and it has similarities with an Andalucía dessert of the Malaga region and other middle eastern desserts.

This dessert is made with almonds, eggs, sugar and lemon zest. A very simple confection that is sure to transport you to any of the almond growing regions of the Mediterranean.

Bienmesabe canario has been my inspiration for a gluten free “crust” for this flan dessert–the best “cheese-less” cheese cake you’ll ever have.

tocinillo de cielo, a traditional Spanish custard

tocinillo de cielo, a traditional Spanish custard

“Tocinillo de cielo” translates to something like “little bacon from heaven.” I’m not sure how “bacon-y” it is, but it’s definitely a heavenly dessert.

This is probably one of those recipes that came about long ago when egg whites were used to clarify wine. You can’t throw away all those extra yolks, certainly not in a thrifty and egg-loving Spanish kitchen, so somebody whipped up tocinillo with the extra yolks. Tocinillo is not as popular as flan outside of Spain, but it’s a favorite in my house.

If you’re lactose intolerant, this is a great alternative to flan without any need for milk substitutes.

tocinillo de cielo, a traditional Spanish custard
Here is a serving of tocinillo de cielo that I made in a baking dish. If you’re feeling fancy, you can use ramekins for individual servings.

The recipe is simple and very similar to flan. I left it in the metric measurements. For the most part when it comes to baking I really prefer the metric system!

tocinillo de cielo

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 400 g sugar
  • 250 ml water
  • 100 g sugar
  • 1 Tbsp water

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan, cook 100 g sugar and 1 Tbsp water over medium-low heat and stir regularly until it comes to a medium amber color. Remove from heat and divide evenly into eight flan ramekins. Set aside. If ramekins are too fussy for you, you can use a single baking dish and it works equally well.

In another small saucepan, combine remaining sugar with water. Bring to a boil. Using a candy thermometer, cook until sugar reaches 220°-225°F. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, the syrup should coat the back of a spoon after it has cool down. If not, cook it for a few more minutes.

At this point, traditional recipes call for a little vanilla extract, lemon zest, or orange juice. Instead, I kept my recipe very plain to enjoy the rich flavor of the yolks.

In a large bowl, whisk yolks and whole eggs to combine. Whisk in cooled sugar syrup until well combined. Strain mixture into a large measuring cup or bowl with a spout so you can pour neatly into the prepared ramekins.

Pour egg yolk mixture into prepared ramekins, dividing mixture evenly between them. Ramekins may not be completely full.

Place ramekins into a shallow baking dish (I use a 9×9-inch pan) and place into the oven. Carefully pour hot water into the baking dish, making sure that the hot water comes about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Make sure no water gets in the ramekins.

Bake for 40-50 minutes, until custards are set. A sharp knife inserted gently into the center of one of the custards should come out clean, and they should jiggle only very slightly when moved.

Carefully remove ramekins from water bath and allow to cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until cold, before serving.
To serve, slide a sharp knife around the edge of the custard and invert onto a serving dish.

Buen provecho!

fruit cake

mix of fruit for blackcake
This is the mix of fruit we included in our fruitcake. Raisins, dates, prunes, maraschino cherries, and of course the wild pears that I foraged last year. You can see they are a bit discolored from the everclear, but it’s not so bad!

Now that the holidays are over, you may be sick of fruit cake. But I want to tell you about a very special fruit cake.

I didn’t realize this until now, but the making of this cake started in the fall of 2012.

Remember when I found those very interesting pears growing wild by a parking lot? The tree was very overgrown and the fruit was small. To this day I still don’t know if they were Asian pears or honey pears or some other variety.

I took the pears home. Peeled them and put them in everclear, without blanching them or any previous treatment. They preserved well. They had a great flavor and gave a nice amber color and a pleasant fruity taste to the everclear. But the pears turned dark brown. Picture a gallon-sized glass jar full of these discolored pears floating in yellow liquid, sitting on the kitchen counter. Not the most appealing sight in a food preparation area. You can imagine the kind of things my wife would say about this, but I was mostly pleased with my experiment and I refused to get rid of it just because it wasn’t pretty.

One day Laura mentioned to me how those pears would probably not be bad in a fruit cake. At first I thought this was probably another derogatory comment towards my pears. But Laura has an obsession with black cake, Jamaican fruit cake. And she has been wanting to make it for a long time.

We gathered dried and preserved fruits, my pears included, and we made black cake. Well–sort of.

burnt sugar on the stovetop
Burnt sugar. This is not nearly black enough for blackcake, but this is as far as I could make myself go! Maybe next time I’ll be able to burn it real good. Or maybe I will put my wife in charge of the sugar. 😉

Black cake calls for very dark, burned sugar. That’s what makes the cake black. And I just couldn’t do it. I started the sugar like I have many times for flans or other preparations, but in this case it has to go beyond to the dark side and it has to be very dark and bitter. I have seen this happen by mistake multiple times. Thick smoke permeates the kitchen and your innocent preparation turns into Napalm in front of your eyes. A rookie pours water on it and then it takes over your kitchen! Years of training kicked in and when the caramel was to a “safe” darkness I pulled it away from the heat. I just couldn’t burn it. It wasn’t dark enough for the Jamaican version but it made a very nice looking “regular” fruit cake.

We kept it in a can for three months, like you do, turning it periodically for the moisture to code evenly.

A few weeks ago we tried it for the first time. It was tasty! Laura was pretty pleased with the results, even if it’s not as dark as she was hoping for.

I was glad my special pears were put to good use. It was a fun project. And I don’t have to hear any more complaints about the big jar of pears on the counter.

a slice of fruitcake--our first attempt at Jamaican "black cake"
A slice of fruitcake–a classic holiday dessert, often mocked, but this one is pretty tasty. It’s our first attempt at Jamaican “black cake.” It was delicious–fruity, tender, soaked in alcohol–what’s not to like?! Happy holidays to me. 🙂