This dessert (also frequently transliterated as watalappan) is probably one of the CC's favorites even though the CC is not much of a dessert person to start with!
It's related functionally to the very Spanish flan which is another one of the CC's favorites.
The massive difference between the two is that the Sri Lankan dessert substitutes coconut milk for the cream and milk in the original. This changes the chemistry in a significant way. It also adds a ton of "sweet" spices that flourish on the island. The sugar is substituted by a very specific palm jaggery which adds a smoky flavor and brown color to the product.
Flan is notoriously hard to make. It's very finicky about the percentage of fat in the cream and the milk and the water content. Flubs are common and the act of making it requires real skill.
Almodóvar films an entire flan recipe in his movie Volver. It's both a love ode to the wonderful dessert and a character study in the great tradition of silent films. By eavesdropping on a character who's clearly very talented at making it, and watching her do the thing she loves, we learn more about her than could be inferred from mere dialog.
The chemistry of coconut milk is much simpler than that of cream plus milk. Some genius made the substitution historically and it's a knockout since the proportions in coconut milk are exactly right to get the correct consistency and hence, flubbing is kept to at a minimum.
The jaggery that needs to be used is a palm jaggery called kithul jaggery. It's a little hard to find but it has a characteristic flavor that's hard to reproduce. Regular jaggery simply doesn't have the smoky flavor and it's not sweet enough.
The CC found it in London of all places which led someone to remark, "What does the CC do in London? He buys Sri Lankan jaggery and hauls it back to New York." This has irony written all over it since the CC was in Sri Lanka earlier in the year and didn't haul it back then. However, the bottom line is "Globalization, baby!"
The dessert is traditionally steamed but you can easily make it in an oven with a water bath as long as you have large pans. It also scales effortlessly. Best of all, it needs to be made ahead of time and cooled so you will be able to impress your guests without much effort.
It's just pure magic.
100 gram kithul jaggery
200 ml coconut milk
1 large stick cinnamon
1 vanilla pod
3 cardamom pods
5 large eggs (read notes!)
Note 1: The jaggery is conveniently sold in 100 gram units wrapped in the dried palm leaves.
Note 2: The amount of milk in a standard can of coconut milk is close to 200 ml. Good enough. This recipe is quite forgiving. Shake it well before opening.
Note 3: The CC has seen pandanus leaves (called rampe in Sinhalese) added to the coconut milk. Great taste if you have some. Can be found frozen and work like a charm.
Note 4: The jaggery is quite hard and tradition calls for shaving it. The CC smashed it with a hammer and used the pieces. It made no difference since it dissolves completely and you will filter the product anyway. Tradition frequently wastes time without asking the obvious questions.
Note 5: If you use regular jaggery, you will need 4-8 tbsp of brown sugar to get the right sweetness.
Note 6: There is no way to predict how many eggs will be needed. Firstly, the coconut milks have different amounts of liquid. Secondly, the eggs are of different sizes even within the same grade. Lastly, the yolks are of different sizes. The CC started with four and then was forced to add one more to get it right. Chances are you might need an extra egg or one less. Start with four and go from there.
Remove the cardamom seeds from the pod. Crush the cloves and cardamom in a mortar and pestle.
In a saucepan, heat up the ground cardamom and cloves, vanilla pod, cinnamon and ground nutmeg with the coconut milk and the jaggery. Bring it to a boil and turn down the heat to very low. Stir until everything dissolves and the spices steep into the liquid. Roughly 12-15 minutes. This also has the advantage of removing some of the moisture from the coconut milk.
Taste it. It should be cloyingly sweet and the spices should be prominent. (Don't worry. The final product will be nowhere near as sweet. We still have the eggs, remember?)
Strain the liquid into a bowl and let it cool down to room temperature. (Stick it in a freezer if you're in a hurry.) Discard any spices or solids left behind. Make sure that the mixture is cold otherwise the eggs will scramble when you incorporate them.
Beat the eggs but not too much. Don't incorporate too much air into them.
Strain the egg mixture using a fine sieve into the cold coconut milk liquid above. You will need to use a whisk to get the egg mixture through the sieve.
This step is CRUCIAL. The final product will simply not work without it.
Mix the batter gently to incorporate it completely. It should be slightly dense and thick but still liquid.
Split the mixture evenly into four oven-proof bowls. Cover each of them tightly with aluminum foil.
Now, you have two choices.
Steaming: Steam the four bowls in a steamer for 40 minutes. Check at that mark. They should be jiggly. If not, steam for an extra 5 minutes.
Baking: You're not really baking. You will need a deep pan that can hold the bowls. Preheat the oven to 350°F for 10 minutes. Heat some water in a kettle. Place the bowls in the pan. When the oven is heated, and the water is boiling, pour it in the pan around the bowls. Cover the pan itself with a separate piece of aluminum foil and put it in the oven. Steam for 40 minutes. Check. If not jiggly enough, steam for an additional 5 minutes.
The trick with the water is that all the energy is going into vaporizing the water so that the egg mixture itself never goes above the boiling point of water. Very clever and this clearly scales effortlessly.
Let them cool down to room temperature. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. They are frequently topped with more cashews and raisins but this is a bit of gilding the lily.