I’m making this dessert for Thanksgiving to give my turkey dinner a Cuban twist. After all, butternut squash is one of the most common ingredients of a Thanksgiving meal, and the most Cuban of desserts is flan.
Not long after arriving in Cuba, I was surprised to find that a type of butternut squash called calabaza is extremely common here. I had always associated butternut squash with winter and New England. But it turns out that both squashes are native to the Americas and grow equally well in cold and hot climates, a demonstration of the shared history between the U.S. and the Caribbean. We sometimes forget how linked our history is. After all, Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba during his explorations. The Spanish settled Cuba, along with much of the southern part of the United States, including my home of Southern California. Cuba and the U.S. had a very close, almost colonial relationship after the Spanish-American war.
You can find calabaza at some Latin American markets overseas. They resembles butternut squash that made their way into a Tim Burton film: they're curvy and warped gourds and often weigh as much as a turkey. If you can find one that’s halved, look for flesh that’s bright orange and very firm. The peel should be marbled with orange and white streaks.
But I wondered why flan was so common in Cuba. (If you're a purist, you can find my basic flan recipe here.) I got various answers from my local friends. The dessert, of course, is Spanish in origin and was brought by the many Spanish immigrants who settled in Cuba. The other reason it’s popular in Cuba these days is because the ingredients are few and fairly easy to find: powdered milk, eggs, and sugar. (Incidentally, I just came across a recipe for Cuban pumpkin flan on The New York Times website, but I know it's not authentic because it's impossible to find half-and-half cream in Cuba.)
Another reason for its popularity is that flan can be made on a stovetop. It doesn’t have to be baked, and in fact cooks more quickly over a flame. Some Cubans don’t own an oven. Even those who have a stovetop often don’t have a very modern one. I’ve walked into homes to find stoves lit through the afternoon and evening, regardless if they're in use or not. Pilot lighters and matches are rare, but propane is inexpensive.
Whatever the case, the ultimate reason flan is ubiquitous is simply because it’s delicious. When I'm making this flan and the scent of burnt sugar impregnates the air, I begin to anticipate that initial smooth bite. Firmer than pudding but softer and smoother than cake, it’s got a texture that’s in between and just right And with this flan, I love sneaking a vegetable into my children's dessert.
For the caramel:
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
For the flan:
3/4 lb fresh, good quality calabaza, butternut squash, or other cooking pumpkin, peeled and cut into 2-inch square pieces
2 cups water
3/4 cup powdered whole milk (not skim) -- you can buy it here
1 cup white sugar
1/8 tsp salt
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp vanilla
Place the squash/pumpkin in a medium pot and pour in 2 cups of water. Place it on the stove over a medium flame for 15 minutes, or until the squash/pumpkin is easily pierced by a fork. Strain it through a colander and reserve 1 cup of this liquid. Discard the rest.
While boiling the pumpkin, mix the ingredients for the caramel in a small saucepan and heat over a medium flame, stirring occasionally until the sugar browns and thickens, about 10-15 minutes. Turn off the heat and, working quickly, pour the caramel into a bundt pan, making sure to coat the sides.
Place the pumpkin, 1 cup of the liquid in which it was boiled, and the rest of the flan ingredients into a blender. Blend for 2-3 minutes on medium, until smooth. Pour the mixture into the bundt pan, over the caramel. Place the pan in a large pot halfway filled with water and cover. Simmer for 30 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean.
Let the flan cool in the bundt pan for one hour at room temperature before transferring to the refrigerator to cool for at least another 2 hours. Invert it onto a plate and serve immediately.