Monday, February 28, 2011


When you pick up a package of Manchego cheese at the supermarket, do you ever stop to wonder where it comes from?

Manchego means it comes from La Mancha. La Mancha, Don Quixote’s stomping ground, is an upland plateau in the very heart of Spain. It’s a land of open spaces and big skies, where shepherds move herds of sheep across stubbled fields. Windmills appear on ridge tops like a line of cavalry. The occasional castle with its medieval battlements looks for all the world like a movie set.

Authentic Manchego cheese—with a label showing the denominación de origen guaranteeing it’s place of origin—is made exclusively from the milk of sheep of the Manchega breed and produced within the designated areas of La Mancha. 

The cheese must be matured for a minimum of sixty days, producing a semi-cured cheese. Longer curing produces a drier cheese with a pronounced nutty flavor. (Though, “aged Manchego,” without the cheese added, could also mean an old man from La Mancha.) Sometimes cheeses are submerged in olive oil to keep them longer.

(You’ll find much more about cheese making in my book COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA.)

Manchego is one of those go-to cheeses that’s great for almost anything. Slice it and serve as a tapa; use it for grilled cheese sandwiches; grate it for a vegetable gratin; top a pizza with it; pair it with quince paste (membrillo) for dessert. Or use it for these delectable cheese flans.

Cheese Flans with Ham
Flan de Queso con Jamón

Egg whites folded into the custard give these flans a light texture. For a vegetarian version, omit the ham. Serve the flans with steamed broccoli or grilled asparagus as a luncheon entrée or with shrimp or crab and greens as a starter. A semi-cured Manchego cheese works best.

Serves 8.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped scallions
3 ½ tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 cup light cream
½ cup tomato sauce (not concentrate)
2 eggs, separated, whites reserved in a clean bowl
2 whole eggs, beaten with 2 yolks
8 ounces Manchego cheese, grated
3 ounces chopped serrano or cooked ham
Pinch of cayenne
Pinch of dried thyme
½  teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Oil 8 (1-cup) custard cups or individual flan molds and set them in a baking pan.

Heat the oil in a saucepan and sauté the scallions 1 minute. Stir in the flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute. Whisk in the milk and cream and cook on a medium heat until the custard begins to thicken, 5 minutes. Whisk in the tomato sauce and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.

Whisk in the beaten eggs and yolks. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese, ham, cayenne, thyme, salt and pepper.

Beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Beat 1/3 of the whites into the custard mixture. Fold the remaining whites thoroughly into the custard.

Ladle the custard mixture into the custard cups, filling them only ¾ full. Pour enough hot water into the baking pan to come halfway up the cups. Carefully transfer the pan to the oven. Bake until custards are set (a skewer comes out clean), 40 to 45 minutes.   

Remove the flans from the baking pan and let them cool at least 15 minutes. Loosen the sides with a knife and unmold the flans onto individual plates. Serve warm or room temperature.

Cheese flan with salad greens makes a delightful lunch.

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