Pumpkin Pie Becomes Pumpkin Flan with Caramel Sauce

On Thanksgiving Day I was torn between making flan, a very Mexican dessert, and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Great Pumpkin Pie. I love pumpkin pie. I love flan. Which was it to be? With only two of us at the table, I didn’t need to make two desserts. Why not make a pumpkin flan?

Flan is basically a custard of eggs and milk, sometimes with cream, sometimes not. It comes in a great variety of flavors — vanilla, coconut, almond, corn, orange, and even pumpkin. Mexican flan always has a caramel sauce. Pumpkin pie is also a type of custard, composed primarily of eggs and milk and/or cream. Is there any difference between the two, except that one has a crust and the other a caramel sauce?

So Pumpkin Flan it was, using Rose’s recipe for pumpkin pie, which is the creamiest, silkiest pumpkin pie I have every eaten, and I’ve made and eaten a lot in my time. Find her recipe on the forum, Real Baking with Rose Levy Beranbaum, and in The Pie and Pastry Bible.

I prefer desserts that are not too sweet, so I decreased the sugar to 1/4 cup and doubled the amount of vanilla. Vanilla has an ability to highlight sweetness, so it serves a useful function in a dessert with decreased sugar, as well as adding its own full flavor.

Did I say I decreased the sugar? All that sugar I didn’t use … well it went into the caramel sauce, plus more.  I’m sure there is a scientific explanation for this, but when sugar is caramelized, it is no longer as sweet. But I guess sugar is sugar, caramelized or not. Using a caramel sauce is another reason to decrease the sugar in the filling. If you didn’t, I think the caramel would make it overly sweet.

Let’s get started. First, read the recipe through completely, twice if need be.  Heat 4-5 cups of water to boiling. Get out all of your ingredients, and measure or weigh as called for in the recipe. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Have a large baking dish at the ready, big enough for 7 6-oz. custard cups or ramekins. Now for the caramel sauce.

Caramel Sauce

Put 1/4 cup of sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan. (I have made this in a heavy sauce pan and in a non-stick skillet — either will do the job.) Cook over medium heat, tilting the pan back and forth, until sugar is dissolved.  Continue to cook until caramel reaches a rich amber color. At this point, the dissolved sugar will be bubbling.

As soon as the caramel is nice and dark, add 1/2 cup of room temperature water and 3/4 cup of sugar (making a total of 1 cup of sugar), stirring all the while with a heat-resistant spatula to dissolve the sugar. As soon as the sugar is disolved, turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons of rum, stirring gently.

Divide the caramel sauce among the 7 custard cups.  Caramel sauce heats to a very high temperature, so be extra careful. Don’t put the spoon to your mouth to taste the caramel — your tongue will sizzle! Or sear! And as an extra safety precaution, keep the kids out of the kitchen while you make the caramel.

Put the pan back on the stove. It will have some caramel residue in it, but that’s OK — the small amount stuck to the inside of the pan will dissolve when we cook the pumpkin mixture.

Following Rose’s recipe, add pumpkin, sugar, spices and salt to the pan. Stir until it starts to sputter, and cook 3-5 minutes.

Scrape into a food processor fitted with the metal “S” blade and process for one minute. Next blend in milk and cream. Scrape the sides of the work bowel if needed. Add eggs one at a time, blending each egg for about 5 seconds. Add vanilla with the last egg. Divide mixture among the seven custard cups. Place cups in a large baking dish and pour the boiling water halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes.

The flan is done when a knife blade comes clean when inserted half-way between the edge of a cup and the center of the cup. Carefully remove baking pan from oven and remove custard cups from the baking pan. Be careful as you reach into boiling water. Silicone oven mitts are great for this. If the center of the flan is not yet set, don’t be concerned — it will continue to cook after being removed from the oven. Cool to room temperature on a rack.

Invert cups onto serving dish. The caramel should flow down the sides of the flan. Serve room temperature or cold.

Placing a ginger flower in the photo seemed appropriate, as I used freshly grated ginger in the pumpkin mixture. Little bits of flan broke away when I unmolded the flans and can be seen in the caramel sauce. I started to pick them out, but that effort quickly became tedious. Leaving them in shows a picture of what real cooking looks like sometimes. And it didn’t affect the taste one bit.

If you choose not to make a caramel sauce, whipped cream on top is all you will need and no one will complain.

If you would rather make a pumpkin pie, here is Rose’s pastry recipe, the best pie crust I have every made.   I hope my superlatives do not become tiresome, but Rose’s recipes really are the best in their respective categories.


  • If you used the large-sized can of pumpkin and have left-overs, put the pumpkin puree in a small container and freeze for another time.
  • You can use water or cream instead of rum to thin the caramel sauce. Just be careful when you add liquid, as it will sputter and bubble.
  • Today’s Free Kitchen Tip: whenever you use your can opener with food that is wet, oily, or messy in some way, clean the blades of the opener by closing them on a paper towel and turning the handle as though you were opening a can. You can see in this photo the pumpkin residue on the paper towel.

Chiles en Nogada à la Française for Thanksgiving

While many in our birth country were stuffing turkeys for Thanksgiving, I was stuffing poblano chiles for my interpretation of a traditional Mexican dish, Chiles en Nogada. This colorful dish, created in Puebla, Mexico, to honor one of the last leaders of revolt against Spanish rule, features the colors of the Mexican flag: green poblano chiles, white cream sauce with walnuts, and red pomegranate seeds as a garnish, and is as flavorful as it is attractive.

If you look up this recipe on line or in a Mexican cookbook, you will see that up to fourteen or more different  ingredients may be used for the  meat component, and a sauce that may call for farmer’s cheese, sugar or salt, white bread, Maggi seasoning, Worcestershire Sauce or cinnamon. I make a much more simple version, but one that is delicious nonetheless, mostly due to the inclusion of Duxelles (pronounced dook-sehl), a French preparation of mushrooms.

With one foot in our birth country and the other in our adopted home of Mexico, I often fuse the best of both countries in the kitchen. On this day, France makes a culinary appearance also, which is not entirely inappropriate, as France had its place in the history of Mexico with its turn at an unsuccessful rule by placing the unfortunate Emperor Maximilian on the Mexican throne.

Chiles en Nogada are traditionally stuffed with picadillo, stewed and shredded pork or beef to which dried or fresh fruit is added. Instead of the picadillo mixture, I used ground beef chuck combined with duxelles. The creamy walnut sauce, also greatly simplified,  remains in the recipe to provide the white of the Mexican flag and a sweet coolness.

  • For a vegetarian version of this dish, substitute well seasoned, cooked beans, such as black beans or pinto beans, for the ground meat. Remember, there are no rules in cooking; substitute whatever appeals to you.

    This dish has several components and can be started the day before to make the preparation easier. Day one: make duxelles and walnut cream sauce. Day two: roast and peel chiles; combine duxelles with cooked, ground chuck and stuff chiles.


     1 lb. (500 grams) mushrooms
    2 cups loosely packed parsley
    1/4 cup chopped onion or shallot
    1/4  cup (50 ml) olive oil
    1 tablespoon dry sherry (optional)
    salt and pepper to taste

    Read the recipe through completely at least once; twice is better. Assemble, weigh and measure out all ingredients. This is called “mis en place” and will make all your cooking so much easier and organized.

    1. Using a food processor, pulse mushrooms and parsley in two batches until finely chopped.

    2. Heat pan and add olive oil. Add mushroom/parsley mixture and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 25-30 minutes. The mushrooms will exude liquid as they cook, and then cook to an almost dry state. The idea is to cook the mixture until almost dry but not to brown.

3. Add sherry (or port or dry red wine), if using. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Cool and refrigerate if making the day before. If you have any leftover, duxelles adds a savory flavor to soups, stews, omelet filling, pizza topping — anything to which you want to add the fifth taste, unami.

Ground Meat

8 oz. (1/2 kilo) ground chuck
1/4 cup (50 ml.)olive oil
the prepared duxelles
1/4 cup (50 ml.)  cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Saute meat in oil. When meat is completely cooked, stir in duxelles. Remove from heat and stir in cream. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Walnut Cream Sauce

3/4 cup  (150 ml.) sweet cream or sour cream
6 tablespoons (42 grams) walnut pieces
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

Using food processor, blend  cream, walnuts and cinnamon until mostly smooth. Little pieces of nut are fine — they will lend an element of texture. Chill.

Diana Kennedy, in her book, The Cuisines of Mexico, adds a note to soak the walnut pieces overnight in water if you can not use very fresh nuts. As few of us have access to nuts not long off the tree, we may want to try soaking them for a softer nut texture. She also says that there is no substitute for poblano chiles, but I think you could use bell peppers. Of course, the flavor would not be the same, but they would still be tasty.

Roast Poblano Chiles

Roast 4-6 poblano chiles using a gas burner, a gas or charcoal grill or a broiler. Using tongs, place the chiles near the heat source, turning as the skins char and blacken. Remove from heat when skins are mostly blackened and blistered. Don’t be concerned if not every part is blackened — some green spots are OK.

As chiles are removed from heat, place in a paper bag, or dish covered with paper towels, to let the chiles steam for 10 minutes to loosen the blistered skin. When cool enough to handle, use a serrated knife to scrape the blackened skin off the chiles. It isn’t essential to remove every single piece of charred skin. Little remaining bits are OK. If you have sensitive skin, use gloves, as chiles may burn  your hands if they are extra hot. Generally, poblanos are a mild chile with a moderate heat level. Blistered poblano chiles are also used to make

Chiles Rellenos.

Split chiles open on one side, pulling out seeds. You may need to use a knife or kitchen shears to cut out the seed attachment, being careful not to tear the chile.


Spoon hot meat mixture into room temperature chiles. Arrange on plate and top with cold walnut cream. For the red garnish, I used diced oil-packed dried tomatoes. You could also use diced fresh red pepper. Or even pomegranate seeds if you can find them.

Chiles en Nogada are traditionally served at room temperature or hot. If they have cooled a bit during the stuffing and you want to serve them hot, you can re-heat in the oven in a covered dish. Don’t garnish with walnut cream until they are out of the oven.

A green salad with lime vinaigrette, sweet potato purée with sage and olive oil, and pumpkin flan rounded out our Thanksgiving dinner, for which we were truly grateful.


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“Rosed” almond pound cake

Easy Recipe for Almond Pound Cake and Almond Paste

A cook book I have owned for almost twenty years has recently become a sort of bible for me. Aptly named The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum, it truly is a guidepost for how to make the best possible cakes in a home kitchen. Rose has a different method for mixing the ingredients, which results in wonderfully tender and moist cakes.  Instead of creaming the butter and sugar as most recipes do, she mixes the butter into the dry ingredients to coat the flour molecules, which prevent over-development of gluten. We want gluten for the chew in bread, but we don’t need that same chew in cakes.

Whenever I read any other cake recipe than hers, I mentally change the instructions and ingredients to her method — I “Rose” the recipe. Now I am using recipes that are not always hers, but always have her signature tenderness. Here is the first cake I adapted. This is also the very first entry on my blog, Cooking in Mexico.

The recipe is so high in fat, I call it a “Pound Cake Plus”. The recipe was sent to me after a failed baking attempt when it collapsed in the center. It was reported to be delicious, but needed help to maintain its structure. I wanted to bake this cake, but I also wanted it to look good. Any recipe can be corrected, and this one corrected beautifully. Using less fat, less sugar, the correct pan, and Rose’s mixing method made all the difference.

Both fat and sugar contribute to the tenderness of a cake, but overdoing these two can result in a cake so tender, it can’t maintain its structure  I lessened the fat only slightly by using two whole eggs instead of four egg yolks. I lessened the sugar significantly, though the recipe still contains enough when the amount of sugar in the almond paste is taken into consideration. I used a tube pan instead of a 9″ springform pan to provide more surface to support the cake, and finally, I mixed it using Rose’s method of blending the dry ingredients with the fat ingredients for a tender crumb.

“Rosed” Almond Pound Cake

  • 2 whole eggs at cool room temperature
  • 1 cup (242 grams) sour cream , divided
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 cups (228 grams) 50% whole wheat flour, 50% all purpose flour (if measuring by volume, sift then measure)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar (100 grams) (Pulverize sugar in food processor for 3 minutes or use fine granulated sugar)
  • 7 oz. (200 grams) almond paste (see below to make your own)
  • 1 cup (227 grams) butter at cool room temperature
  • Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Butter and flour an 8-9 cup tube pan or an 8-cup loaf pan. Line bottom of pan with buttered parchment paper.
  • Combine eggs, 1/4 cup of sour cream and almond extract in a small bowl.
  • Combine flour, baking soda, salt and sugar in a stand-up mixer on low speed for 30 seconds.
  • Add butter, almond paste and remaining 3/4 cup of sour cream. Mix on low speed until all ingredients are moistened, then increase speed to medium and beat for 1 1/2 minutes.
  • Scrape down sides of bowl. Add the egg mixture in three batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, scraping down sides of bowl after each addition.
  • Scrape batter into prepared pan, smooth top with spatula and bake for 50-60 minutes, checking after 40 minutes. After 40-45 minutes, cover with foil to prevent over-browning of top.
  • When a wooden toothpick inserted into cake center comes out clean, the cake is done. Let cool for 10 minutes in pan, then invert onto cooling rack. Remove parchment paper and, using a second cooking rack, gently turn cake right side up to cool completely.

As the photo attests, this cake has no problem maintaining its structure while still remaining tender, even when made with 50% whole wheat flour. It is so rich, that no more than a dusting of powdered sugar is needed. For a special occasion, serve with fresh fruit and whipped cream or ice cream.

*Almond Paste

In food processor, combine 7 oz. each of whole blanched almonds and powdered sugar. If you only have unblanched almonds, follow these easy instructions to blanch and remove the skins:

Pour boiling water over the almonds and let sit for exactly one minute. Immediately drain and immerse in cold water until cool enough to handle. Pat dry with a towel. Pinch each nut with your fingers to pop the nut out of its skin. This is easier than it sounds. Put in a skillet over moderately low heat until the nuts are fairly dry but not starting to toast.

Back to the food processor. Process the now blanched almonds and sugar until fairly fine. Add one egg white, a pinch of salt and one teaspoon of almond extract. At this point, it may be so thick that you need to pulse the mixture. It’s OK if the paste is not absolutely smooth,  as small pieces add some  texture to the cake. This will make enough for two cakes plus a little extra to eat by the spoon — it is that good! Freeze the extra for the next time you bake Almond Pound Cake. Or you can buy almond paste. It’s a little pricey, so consider making the paste, at least once, if only to see how easy it is to make and how good homemade almond paste tastes.


If you don’t have superfine sugar, pulverize sugar in a food processor for three minutes.

Update: Initially, I intended for my blog, Cooking in Mexico, to be mostly a baking blog. Instead, it found its own way and marched in the direction of Mexico, our home now for thirteen years. This unexpected development has given me a finely tuned appreciation for Mexican cuisine. I hope it does the same for you.
December 8, 2010

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