Monday, March 12, 2007


THIS is how my husband Lauren tells it:

Cecilia wooed me under false pretenses. When I was in the Peace Corps, I got sick and had to be hospitalized in Cebu, Philippines. Cecilia and her friends visited me, and they had a platter with leche flan, and she led me to believe that she made it. It was the best leche flan I ever had and I couldn’t stop thinking about it even when I returned to California…”

I’m remembering that summer day in Cebu, trying hard to recall if I claimed to have made the leche flan. I’m certain I didn’t; I wouldn’t have lied about that. But I’m jumping ahead of the story. Let me back track.

During the summer of 1966 I was in the Island of Cebu. I loved Cebu. I was born and raised there, but my widowed mother had transferred me to Manila for my high school and college studies since she worked there. Manila was crowded, dusty, noisy, and the lifestyle was more hectic than Cebu’s. When the holidays came around I couldn’t wait to take the plane South to return home to Cebu. I loved our home there; I savored the quiet slower pace of life. And there were my friends, and food — I couldn’t wait to eat Cebuano food. I found Tagalog food too strong — too salty or too sour, too bitter, too intense. Cebuano food was more subtle, more flavorful. There was a directness and simplicity to the dishes: kinilaw, lechon, grilled fish, roasted chicken. The delicacies especially were wonderful: scrumptious rich tortas, soft buttery ensaimadas, crispy Titay’s Rosquillos cookies, and other delicacies that contribute to Cebu’s culinary fame.

That summer I did what I always did in past summers: I slept in, a luxury I could never do in Manila since it took me an hour each way to get to school and so I had to be up by 5:30 a.m. In Cebu, I could loll around until past 8 and by around 8:30 a.m. I was having breakfast with my brother and his family. Even though my fried eggs, over-easy, were somewhat cold, I loved the fried chorizo--Cebuano, scrumptious sausages special-ordered from the old woman who had made them for my grandparents. It was like that in Cebu — we had our favorite vendor for food like tableya Chocolate, bibingka, budbud kabog, even chicharon. The chorizos we got were huge and plump and glistened red-brown with the lard rendered from pork fat. Remember this was in the 60s before we thought of cholesterol; the chorizos were heavenly. Sometimes the cook prepared fried dried fish, such as dangit, small, crispy, salty, and as sinful as a potato chip.

After breakfast, I read or played with my nieces and nephews or did errands with my brother or sister-in-law, just for the ride. Soon it was lunchtime, which was an elaborate affair with several courses. Soup could be malanggay soup with chicken, followed by fried crablets, estofado, pork adobo, rice, and seasonal fruit or something more sinful like sansrival or leche flan. Hmmm – leche flan – our cook Menggay made the lightest, creamiest, tastiest flan in the entire world – but more of that later on.

After lunch, instead of taking siesta as the other members of the family did, I usually took off to see my cousin and friends. The seven of us (we actually called ourselves the Magnificent Seven) would either hang around in someone’s house where we practiced putting on makeup or fussed with our hair, or we would go see a movie. Afterwards, we had merienda in someone’s house — favorites were fried bananas or linusak (plantains pounded and mixed with brown sugar) or ginataan (plantains, sweet potatoes, langka and other fruit and roots cooked in coconut milk). As I write this now, I wonder how we managed to remain trim. It must have been the dancing we did at night, because practically every night, we were out to a party or to a club, dancing until 2 or 3 in the morning.

It was in one of these parties where I met my future husband. To be exact, we were in the Casino Español, and everyone who was anyone in Cebu was there. Earlier that day, our group had gone to the beauty parlor, had put on makeup, wore our flashiest dresses, and there we sat around a table in the second floor of the Casino Español, trying to appear sophisticated. We were silly of course, and young and prone to giggling fits at the slightest provocation, and it was during one of these giggling moments, when someone tapped me on my right shoulder. I turned and saw the tallest American I had ever seen. He was nice-looking, with reddish-brown hair. I didn’t know whether to talk to him or ignore him.

At this point, let me explain my ambivalence: in 1966 the Vietnam War was going on and nearby Mactan Island had an American base. This meant that American soldiers were all over Cebu. Our mothers warned us to stay away from the soldiers; however we were allowed to socialize with the American Peace Corps Volunteers. Our mothers felt sorry for the young volunteers who lived in remote towns without running water and electricity, and who seemed devoted to their duties of teaching or doing community work. We saw them tramping through the streets, riding jeepneys and buses to get to places, and couldn’t help but be touched by the sight of them.

Lauren extended his right hand, and I stared at it. It was my cousin’s boyfriend, Pete, an American Peace Corps Volunteer who solved my dilemma. “That’s Lauren, another volunteer,” Pete said. That meant it was all right for me to greet him. I took his hand, but — and to this day I have no idea why it happened — words escaped me: “Pleased me to meet you,” I said. I shook my head, tried to correct myself, but he already had me out on the dance floor. He stood 6’5” and I stood 5’4” — everyone watched, and a number of girls were snickering. I felt self-conscious, embarrassed, but Lauren was funny and cute, and so I did not mind dancing with him again.

He was based in another island, in Maasin, Leyte, but when he was in the city, he hung out with us. Then curiously, near the end of the summer, we didn’t see him. He simply vanished. We speculated he found a girl friend. I felt awful about this, but tried not to show my unhappiness. The truth is I missed him terribly; I’d grown accustomed to his stories and jokes.

It was Pete who informed us that Lauren was in the hospital. “What happened? What happened?” we gushed. Pete said something about surgery on his leg. Then we started to feel sorry for this young American, away from his home, alone in the hospital, waiting for surgery.

We decided to visit him. Just as we were leaving, I saw that our cook Menggay had a couple of platters of her famous leche flan in the kitchen. I grabbed one and brought it with us to the hospital. The seven of us marched into that hospital room that reeked of alcohol. There Lauren lay, on that cold steel hospital bed, with one leg hoisted up on some contraption. The doctors had cut into his leg. There is nothing more pathetic-looking than a huge man lying helpless on a hospital bed with his leg dangling up in the air. I imagined how miserable I would have felt if I were sick and helpless in a foreign country. I could have wept. I was so caught up feeling sorry for him that my cousin had to nudge me to give him the flan. He perked up; he tried to sit up to take a good look at the flan. It was a beautiful golden brown flan; a masterpiece. He beamed and smiled at me gratefully. He didn’t look as fallen as he had when we had walked in. I have no recollection of what I said that day. I don’t believe I claimed to have made the flan myself. But Lauren’s memory is that I made it, and to this day, he insists that I said I made that flan. “You wooed me under false pretenses,” he jokes.

Years later, when we were married and living in San Francisco where he was a law student, he kept badgering me to make leche flan. We were young and poor and lived in an apartment house directly across the Levi Strauss factory in the Mission District. He attended Hastings School of Law, and I worked as an Executive Secretary at McCormick-Schilling Corporation on Montgomery Street. “I can’t; I don’t have the leche flan mold,” I said, excusing myself. The truth is that beyond frying hamburgers, I could barely cook — I don’t know why he had not noticed that and still nurtured the belief that I could actually make leche flan. I never cooked when I lived in the Philippines; our cooks did all of that.

“Oh,” he said, “discouraged. “Maybe you can find it here.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

When we had a son and I brought him to the Philippines for a visit, he reminded me, “Be sure and find the flan mold.”

Back in Cebu, I made it a point to ask our cook Menggay for her leche flan recipe. She turned coy and with a smile said, “It’s very easy, some eggs, milk, sugar, that’s all.” She was an ageless, plain woman, who usually wore a scowl, and who now had a vile little smile.

“But what do you do with them?” I insisted.

“You mix them together, and then you double boil it, that’s all.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere, so the next time she prepared leche flan, I made it a point to stand right beside her to observe her. True enough, she mixed 4 eggs, 1 can of evaporated milk, 1 cup sugar, some vanilla, and did she throw in another cup of water? And then she placed sugar at the bottom of an empty metal Magnolia ice cream can, which she held over a low flame to carmelize the sugar into a rich golden brown. Afterwards, she poured in the mixture and placed the can in another container with water. She double boiled it for around 40 minutes. She tested it by pricking the flan with the tip of a knife; when it pulled out clean, it was done. After allowing the flan to cool, she got a knife, ran it between the pan and flan, to separate the flan. Then she placed a serving platter over the can, and flipped it, so the flan would fall onto the platter, bottom-side up. It looked like some kind of sunset; it was breathtaking.

That seemed simple enough, and backat home in the States, I bravely informed my husband I would be making leche flan. “You found the mold,” he said, happily.
I held up the Magnolia ice cream metal can.

“That’s the ice cream container in the Philippines,” he said, with a tinge of disappointment.

“That’s what we use.”

“Oh,” he said, “I thought the flan mold was a special dish or something.”

I did my best to imitate Menggay. I carmelized the sugar, burning my hand while doing so; I double boiled it; and I flipped the flan onto a pretty platter. The flan was a disaster. It didn’t look anything like Menggay’s at all. My carmelized sugar was too dark so the entire top of the flan was muddy brown. The worse part was that the texture of the flan was not right; it was bubbly and grainy, not smooth and creamy like Menggay’s.

Lauren took one look at it and said, “You didn’t make that flan, did you?” He looked disappointed.

“It’s a bit burned, but it’s okay,” I said, scraping off the burned top of the flan.

“I mean, you didn’t make that flan when I was in the hospital.”

“I never said I did.”

“But you said you did.”

I shook my head emphatically. “I didn’t know how to boil an egg. The cook did all the cooking.”

“The cook? Menggay? Menggay made the flan?”

“Of course Menggay made it.”

He looked sadder still and I became sad with him. I hadn’t realized how important that flan had been to him. Clearly it meant something greater than the flan itself; and what this meaning was I had no idea. I’m not sure he could have verbalized it either. In its simplest form, this was it: in 1966, he was young, and sick and alone, in a foreign country, and a young woman had given him this perfect delicious flan, and it had made life better for him. It was probably then when my lifelong love affair with leche flan began. I resolved I would learn how to make good flan.

It was my cousin, Manny, who considered himself something of a gourmet cook, who told me to do away with the Magnolia can and use small custard pyrex dishes – “Throw it out, I never want to see this again!” He taught me how to carmelize sugar in a pan and pour it onto the dishes. He also taught me to double boil for around 35 minutes. My presentation was great; and the texture and appearance of my flan improved a lot. It soon became my specialty. Indeed it was a favorite among my family and friends, especially during holidays.

I had another breakthrough when our family went on a holiday to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. We were staying at a multi-level seaside mansion called Villa Tres Vidas, where we had our own driver and cook, courtesy of the wealthy Newport Beach owner of the mansion. One evening the Mexican cook made leche flan. I was certain it would be inferior to mine and was surprised (and humbled) to discover it was better. Using my broken Spanish, I extracted her recipe: 4 eggs, 1 cup condensed milk, 1 cup evaporated milk, 2 tablespoons vanilla, sugar to carmelize the bottom of the container. Leche Flan Villa Tres Vidas became a family favorite until I had another breakthrough.

This event happened when Lauren had a bad bout of flu. To cheer him up I offered to make leche flan. Cranky, with stuffy nose, and a horrible cough, he grumbled and said he probably couldn’t taste it all. “But, go ahead,” he said.

I had the den TV on to the cooking show channel while I gathered my materials in the kitchen. I was about to crack the eggs when I overheard the program host talk about – of all things - leche flan. I leaned over the counter so I could watch TV better. It was a Vietnamese woman and she was talking about a custard made in Vietnam that was almost exactly like my Leche Flan Villa Tres Vidas. The only difference was that coconut milk took the place of evaporated milk. Right then and there, I ran to the market, bought a can of coconut milk so I could follow her recipe. The result was wonderful! This was the best flan I had ever made: smooth, creamy, and incredibly light. My husband was in bed, coughing and somewhat feverish when I presented the flan. Cranky as he was, he lit up when he saw the perfect golden top. “Go ahead, try it,” I urged him. He did and smiled broadly. “Hmmm, it’s pretty good,” he said, giving his imprimatur to this new recipe.The Vietnamese version is now the favorite among my family and friends. But regardless, I’m always on the lookout for another recipe. In fact I have another leche flan recipe I have to try, one with coffee in it.

(2006 - This article is part of a collection of food essays, by Anvil. Above pictures show Lauren and Cecilia in Devin, Bratislava, and 1967 photos of Lauren as a Peace Corp Volunteer in the Philippines.)

Read also:
Cooking with Cecilia Brainard - Quiche
Cooking with Cecilia Brainard - Linguine with Clams
Cooking Lengua Estofada
Food Essay - Fried Chicken Caribbean-style
How I Learned to Make Leche Flan (or How I Met my Husband)
Cooking with Cecilia - Leche Flan (Vietnamese Style) 
Recipe of Balbacua Cebuana from Louie Nacorda
Easy Filipino Recipes from Maryknollers
Cooking with Cecilia - Beef Bourguignon
Cooking with Cecilia - Chicken Soup for my Bad Cold 

The Rats and James Dean's Porsche 
The Schools I attended, Part 1, St.Theresa's College
The Schools I attended, Part 2, UP & Maryknoll
The Schools I attended, Part 3, UCLA

Saying Goodbye to Papa
Where the Daydreaming Came From 
Death of a Carnival Queen

 tags: food, wine, cooking, recipes, love, family, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, leche flan

1 comment:

Richard said...

This was great!

Cecilia, your descriptions made me feel like I was there and made me VERY hungry. He's lucky to have you, whether you actually made the initial flan or not. Thanks for sharing.