Do you love a nice custard flan, but wish to avoid the dairy and eggs? This vegan coconut flan with raspberry coulis makes a refreshing ending to a hearty meal.
Since this vegan recipe contains no eggs or gelatin, obtaining a flan with the right delicately firm consistency was a bit of a challenge. My first attempt at a baked custard, replacing the eggs with a common dried egg substitute, did not set at all no matter how long I baked it.
Various recipes for vegan flan call for agar powder, so I found some at my local Asian market and substituted it in for the gelatin, as the recipe suggested.
No dice. The flan still refused to set.
A third try — this time following the vague instructions on the package (which was written mostly in Thai), still flopped.
Where was I going wrong? I knew that gelatin-like agar desserts are popular in Asia, so there had to be an explanation.
That’s where this week’s science experiment comes in.
A hydrocolloid story
Agar — also known as agar-agar — is a jelly-like substance derived from the cell walls of algae. It’s been used for centuries to thicken food, and in the laboratory it’s the growth medium in Petri dishes.
Agar is one of a family of substances known as hydrocolloids — or molecules that interact with water in various ways. Along with agar, carageenan and alginate are other seaweed-derived hydrocolloids. Gelatin, as you may know, comes from animal byproducts. Seeds produce the hydrocolloid locust bean gum; trees produce gum Arabic; fruit, pectin. Methylcellulose, xanthan gum and gellan are other hydrocolloids. They all have different characteristics, making them suitable for different thickeners or gels.
Pretty appetizing stuff, huh?
Actually, agar-agar is good for you. Despite their suspicious-looking names, hydrocolloids are all natural, and filled with fiber, so they can fill you up.
Quite frankly, much of the world loves the stuff. In Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, India and Russia desserts made with agar have been popular for centuries.
Agar comes in flake and power form and is easy to find at Asian markets. Here in Sacramento at my local Asian supermarket I had my pick of several brands of flakes, three brands of agar powder, and several colors of agar strips. I kept it simple and chose the powder.
Now for the hard part — correctly interpreting the instructions: “Mix 1 gm. (¼ teaspoon) of Agar Agar Powder with 120 gm. (4 ounces) of boiling water include sugar.”
On my third failed attempt I tried simply mixing the agar powder with boiling water, then adding the sugar. It did not set.
The secrets of hydrocolloid hydration
It turns out that agar powder is very simple to use, but you’d better understand how to activate this hydrocolloid.
Basically, the active ingredient in agar is released, or hydrated, by boiling it for several minutes until the powder is thoroughly dissolved. It also likes to begin its transformation in pure cold or room temperature water.
I will be the first to admit that various hydrocolloids behave in ways I don’t pretend to understand. Gelling and melting temperatures, synergies of various hydrocolloids with each other, a recipe’s calcium and potassium content, measuring errors, thermo-reversibility, syneresis, hysteresis … it’s pretty complicated stuff.
I’m no chemist, but if you’re interested in learning more about the science of hydrocolloids, see this primer from Cooking Issues. Food Arts also published a pretty thorough explanation of hydrocolloids that can get you started.
I’m just happy that my flan finally set.
Reasons to use hydrocolloids
In retrospect, using agar in flan instead of eggs makes perfect sense. Eggs add a considerable amount of flavor, and they must be baked to set.
Vegans and others may wish to reduce or eliminate animal products from their diet.
And because agar has no effect on taste or color, all the flavor of the coconut milk comes cleanly through in the coconut flan recipe below.
I hope you’ll dive in and try this recipe. By now it’s pretty foolproof.
Vegan Coconut Flan with Raspberry Coulis
¾ teaspoon agar powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ cup cold water
1 14-ounce can of full fat coconut milk
8 ounces (½ can) cream of coconut
½ cup soft silken tofu
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 ounce package fresh raspberries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Mint for garnish
Make sauce: Reserving about one-third of raspberries for garnish, place remaining berries, sugar and lemon juice into small sauce pan. Simmer over low heat until berries release their juice and begin to break apart, approximately 10 minutes. Turn off heat and add about 3 tablespoons of agar mixture to raspberries during the next step:
Hydrate agar: Add agar powder, sugar and cold water to medium saucepan. Dissolve powder and sugar and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer vigorously for 10 minutes. (Here’s where you take about 3 tablespoons of the agar mixture and spoon it into the raspberries to help thicken the sauce.)
Remove agar mixture from heat and set aside for up to 10 minutes. (Longer and the mixture may gel.)
In a blender, add coconut milk, cream of coconut, tofu, vanilla and salt; blend thoroughly.
With blender on slow speed, drizzle agar mixture into coconut mixture; then blend on high speed for 1 minute.
Immediately pour flan mixture into ramekins. Refrigerate for at least one hour.
While flan is chilling, complete the raspberry sauce: Strain berries and juice, allowing a few of the seeds to come through. Return the sauce to pan and thicken if necessary. Set aside or refrigerate until serving.
To serve flan, gently slide a butter knife around edges of custard and invert onto plates. Drizzle tops with raspberry coulis. Garnish with mint leaves, if desired, and fresh raspberries.
This dessert will hold up to higher room temperatures without melting, and makes a great palate cleanser. Enjoy!