My Ba Ngoai (Vietnamese for maternal grandmother) was a huge fixture in my life. After immigrating to the United States from Vietnam she spent her years traveling around the country taking care of grandchildren. She would stay with each of her 7 children and their families for months at a time. When she had enough of taking care of grandchildren, she'd head off on an exotic vacation for a month or two. My family loved having her stay with us, me particularly. Food was a huge part of my relationship with her. During the months she stayed with us, she and I went to eat dim sum every Saturday and then go to the Vietnamese Bhuddist temple for prayer and do chay, Vietnamese vegetarian food.
Ba Ngoai was no slouch as a cook. A key part of my childhood was my afternoon snack of homemade flan steamed in soup cans. Before her visits, we would eat soup for lunch to have the empty cans to make weeks' worth of flan. Afternoons at my house were quite a scene as my siblings and their friends came over for a can of flan. Everyone called my grandmother Ba Ngoai and her flan had quite the following. I wish I had been more observant because I can't make the flan the way she did. For starters, every recipe I've found calls for baking the flan in a water bath as opposed to steaming. And somehow I can't get her consistency, halfway between the jiggly custardness of a flan made with purely milk and a dense creaminess of a flan made with condensed milk. I could be the ramekins I use instead of the soup cans. In any case, make flan my way. Hopefully I'll get it right but until then I use this recipe.
1 1/4 cups 1% milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup nonfat sweetened condensed milk
Special equipment: 4 (5- to 6-oz) deep custard cups or ramekins
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Heat 1% milk with vanilla bean halves in a small saucepan over moderate heat until hot. Remove from heat, cover, then steep 20 minutes.
Cook sugar in a 6-inch nonstick skillet over moderately low heat, swirling skillet to help sugar melt evenly, until melted and pale golden. Continue to cook, swirling skillet, until deep caramel, 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately pour into custard cups, tilting cups to coat bottom. Let caramel cool.
Whisk together whole egg, yolk, condensed milk, and a pinch of salt until smooth. Discard vanilla bean pod from steeped milk and gradually whisk milk into egg mixture.
Divide custard among cups and bake in a water bath, loosely covered with a sheet of foil, in middle of oven until custard is set but still trembles slightly, 35 to 40 minutes.
Remove cups from water bath and cool on a rack. Chill, uncovered, at least 2 hours. Unmold flans by running a knife around edges to loosen and inverting onto plates.
• Flans can be made 1 day ahead and kept chilled in custard cups, uncovered.
Each serving about 169 calories and 3 grams fat.
I remember the last meal I ever made with Ba Ngoai. I hadn't seen her in two years because I had studied abroad in England and she was getting the early stages of Alzheimer's and couldn't come out for a visit. The summer in between graduating from college and moving to Washington, my grandmother came to California so I could give my aunts a break and spend time with her. It was hard to see her diminished. Half the time she would be herself and half the time she was her disease. She had periods where she thought she was still in Vietnam and I was one of my uncles. She would go through all of her belongings, worried someone stole her jewelry. That whole summer I tried to engage the Ba Ngoai that I knew, not the person with Alzheimer's. I took her to dim sum and the Bhuddist temple. And I cooked with her. The last meal was a seared salmon that was fried in oil. After cooking all the way through, the salmon was left to rest and we added nuoc mam, a little sugar, sesame oil, garlic and tons of scallions to the remaining oil in the pan and let it simmer for a bit to combine the flavors. We poured the sauce on top of the salmon and served it with Chinese broccoli.