I've never made flan before, so I had a bit of trepidation when my sister-in-law requested it for her birthday dinner. I knew I could count on Mr. Bayless's classic to send me down the right path, and the trust was well deserved. I opted to raise the degree of difficulty by making a single, large flan instead of individual ramekins. It is debatable which is more elegant, but to me the big one is quite dramatic and pleasing.
I literally pumped my fist and whooped when I inverted the custard and it came out with one big thwump, followed by a beautiful waterfall of caramel. The interior was perfectly smooth and creamy – neither so soft that it was disintegrating on the plate, nor overcooked and rubbery.
By the way, and I've looked at a bunch of recipes, there is really no difference between flan and creme caramel. Either one is a rich custard, baked with a caramel sauce, cooled, and served inverted. You can find recipes for both flan and creme caramel using whole milk, whole milk that has been simmered to reduce like in this recipe, condensed milk, heavy cream, or any combination of the above, and with a wide range of egg to milk ratios, so I don't think those can be considered defining factors.
We all felt that we were flan purists, so I didn't opt for any flavorings beyond vanilla. Besides reducing the recipe by 20% to suit the pan I wanted to use, the main other change I made to the original was to take the caramel all the way to the burned sugar stage. We recently had a burnt-sugar gelato from Poco Caretto that has taken ownership of a full third of my taste-cortex, so it was a no-brainer to push the flan in that direction.
Although I haven't made flan before, I have made enough custards to recognize the basic schtick. Two details to really focus on:
- Strain it very thoroughly before baking. Like one pass through a medium sieve and then two passes through a fine sieve. You really don't want even a trace of scrambled egg or milk skin in there.
- Recognize when it is done. A knife inserted in the center should come out clean or nearly so. But you don't want to go until there is no jiggle left. It is going to continue cooking and setting a bit when you take it out of the oven. Look for a slight gelatinous wobble when you move the dish, but definitely not a full-on liquid slosh.
If you choose to bake this in individual ramekins, and you have someone that prefers creme brulee to flan, the custard will work just fine. Simply leave the caramel out of their ramekin, and then brulee some sugar on the top in the usual way just before serving.
Burnt-Sugar Flan (aka Creme Caramel)
Adapted from Rick Bayless' Authentic Mexican (which you should absolutely own)
Requires milk-simmering time + cooling overnight (large flan) or a few hours (indvidual)
Vegetarian and gluten-free; not-vegan
For the custard:
- 6 1/2 cups whole milk
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 5 whole eggs
- 5 egg yolks
- 1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
- Combine the milk and sugar and simmer in a large, heavy saucepan. Simmer for about 45 minutes until reduced to 3 1/4 cups, stirring frequently to avoid scalding.
- Beat the eggs, yolks, vanilla extract and salt in a large bowl. Slowly whisk in the hot milk so as to avoid cooking the eggs. Strain very thoroughly (see discussion above).
- (If you like, you can do this all the day before and refrigerate, just gently warm it before baking.)
For the caramel and to bake the flan:
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- Preheat the oven to 350. Place a 1.5 quart, deep round casserole (a standard CorningWare size) or 8 individual ramekins, in a big roasting pan, deep enough to hold two inches of water safely.
- Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Stir once. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook without stirring until it begins to brown, and then swirl until it gets deep, dark brown. The picture above is deceptive because there is light shining through it. In your pot, it will look really quite dark and begin to have that distinctive burnt sugar smell.
- Working quickly and carefully (melted sugar gives *horrible* burns), pour the caramel into the casserole or divide it among the ramekins. Immediately swirl them so that the sugar coats the sides and the bottom (if doing ramekins, swirl after filling each one). It will harden right away.
- Pour in the custard.
- Carefully fill the baking pan with 2" of boiling water. You might want to do that already on your oven rack. Cover with tinfoil.
- Bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out cleanly, but stop when there is still some jiggle if you shake the mold. That will take about 30 minutes for ramekins or 45 minutes for a big one.
- Cool thoroughly – overnight is best, but fot least several hours.
- To serve, run a knife around the edge all the way to the bottom, cover with a plate, and invert. If necessary, give it a little thwack with your hand and it should come out beautifully, surrounded with a pool of burnt sugar caramel. Hell yes.