Articles / Food with Mark Bittman: Adam Gopnik

Food with Mark Bittman: Adam Gopnik

Published March 15, 2023

Accomplishment vs. achievement, the DNA of a sourdough starter, and the ideal way to get a soufflé to rise

We have a terrific guest today on Food.

Let me start by asking you if you’ve ever found yourself able to do something that you were sure you weren’t ever going to be able to do (like cooking, for example). Remember that feeling? The difference between accomplishment and achievement? Do you ever feel like you’ve really mastered something? 

Our guest today is someone who’s thought about these topics at length, who has experienced mastery in many forms, both his and other people’s, and is, shall I say, a master at studying mastery.

With Kate and me here today is Adam Gopnik, one of the most accomplished and prolific writers I know. He’s written about Paris, baseball, magicians, gun violence — and much about food and cooking, mostly for The New Yorker, where he’s been for 40 years.

I, along with many other people, admire Adam’s work, and when I heard about his new book, The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery, I was eager to have him on to talk about what the hell mastery really is, and also to talk about baking, and favorite New York meals, and many other things. 

“If you look at the genetic composition, the DNA, in a — for instance — a French baker’s starter, there are traces of it that go back to the 19th century, all the little microbes that we have on our hands communicate themselves to the starter. They’re part of what makes it delicious. Shmutz is flavor.” — Adam Gopnik

I wasn’t surprised that Kate and I had a really lively and sweet conversation with Adam. So here’s that, and the recipe from the episode, Adam’s Five C Quarantine Flan, is below.

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Adam Gopnik’s Five C Quarantine Flan

(Coconut- Cinnamon- Cardamom Crème Caramel)


  • 1 ½ cups unsweetened coconut milk

  • 3/4 cup milk

  • 3/4 cup heavy cream

  • 4 egg yolks and 2 whole eggs

  • 1/2 cup sugar (for the custard)

  • 1 cup sugar (for the caramel)

  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon

  • 1/4 cup cold water

  • Four to six cardamom pods

  • Approximately 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes


1. Make the caramel on the stove: Dissolve 1 cup of sugar in water and cook until browned and almost burnt. Take off the stove and add a teaspoon of cinnamon and stir into the super-hot caramel.

2. Pour the caramel into the bottom of four soufflé dishes. (There’s usually enough left over for two mini-soufflé dishes as well. The minis are fun to have for dieting spouses.)

3. Using a whisk, beat the eggs and egg yolks with half a cup of sugar—you can use relatively little sugar with the egg yolks, since the coconut milk is naturally sweet. But not for too long—just until it is a beautiful lemony yellow.

4. Heat the coconut milk, whole milk and heavy cream in a pot. Stir in the husked cardamom pods and the coconut.  Make the mixture hot and just steaming-smoking but not truly boiling.

5. Pour the hot milks into the egg mixture, beating all the while with the whisk to keep the eggs from cooking.

6. Pour the egg and milk mixture, with the coconut and cardamom still in it, into the soufflé cups with the cinnamon caramel hardened on the bottom. (If the mixture’s super-frothy, you can strain it through a sieve, which will leave the cardamom and coconut behind; in that case, mix them back in cup by cup. I never find this step—straining—makes much difference, but some like to do it.) 

7. Put the soufflé cups into a big baking dish with boiling water poured right up so that it comes to about a third of the way up each cup. Bake for approximately 30 minutes at 350°, or until set.

9. Refrigerate. Unmold by running a sharp knife around the edge of each crème caramel and inverting onto a pretty plate. Scoop out the residual caramel—there’s always some—with the knife or spoon onto the flan. Serve with pleasure.

Adam Gopnik’s Five C Quarantine Flan
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