Burnt Sugar Flan (aka Creme Caramel) – Recipe

Flan, aka Creme Caramel, with Burnt Sugar

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)
Serves 6-8
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
  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. (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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Pour in the custard.
  5. Carefully fill the baking pan with 2" of boiling water. You might want to do that already on your oven rack. Cover with tinfoil.
  6. 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.
  7. Cool thoroughly – overnight is best, but fot least several hours.
  8. 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.
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Posted by Michael Natkin on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 in Baking, Desserts, Gluten-Free or modifiable.

23 Responses to “Burnt Sugar Flan (aka Creme Caramel) – Recipe”

  1. Reply
    September 8, 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    Nice! Gotta love the thwump! I once made 30 of them for a catering gig and I did something wrong. They came out okay, but there was about 1/2inch of hardened caramel stuff at the bottom of each ramekin! What a nightmare. I had to soak them with boiling water to get the gunk out. Maybe I’ll give it another go around with Rick’s recipe. He writes good recipes.

  2. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    September 8, 2009 at 7:36 pm #

    He (Rick Bayless) totally does write good recipes. I really haven’t made
    anything from his books that was less than superb. I felt certain he would
    do well if not win Top Chef Masters just based on how killer his flavors
    are, not to mention the rock solid techniques, and sure enough.

  3. Reply
    September 8, 2009 at 7:59 pm #

    I have eaten a lot of flan and this truly was the best evah. Thank you! Feel free to try this in ramekins, too, if you ever are curious to see if the recipe works as well 😉

  4. Reply
    September 8, 2009 at 9:47 pm #

    I love a good flan, and this one looks amazing. Passing it through a sieve a few times is a brilliant idea. I suspect it makes things even smoother and creamer. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Reply
    September 9, 2009 at 12:42 pm #

    That’s killer. Curious, have you tried his other cookbooks? I want to buy one, but am torn between “Authentic Mexican” and “Mexican Everyday”.

  6. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    September 9, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    @heidi – I have both those books, and seriously, you need them both if you
    love to cook Mexican food. The approaches are significantly different. What
    I’ll often do is first look in Authentic Mexican to come up with a basic
    idea that might be a little much to execute, or too meaty to modify for my
    taste. Then I’ll look at Mexican Everyday to see how he has updated similar
    dishes. Then I’ll synthesize the two to come up with what I’m finally going
    to cook. I’ll throw Diana Kennedy into that mix a lot of times too.

  7. Reply
    October 13, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    Can creme caramel be made the day before a dinner party? It is suggested above to “cool” the flan thoroughly – should this be done in the fridge? Does this make it more difficult to turn out at the end? Any suggestions welcome!!

  8. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    October 13, 2009 at 10:47 am #

    You can absolutely make it the day before. Yes, cooling should be done in the fridge. I didn't have any problem turning it out, but if you do, you can warm the bottom of the serving dish in a warm water bath for a few moments to loosen the caramel.

  9. Reply
    January 10, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    Hi. Just to say that I am enjoying your blog, which I just discovered. Thks for highlighting Rick Bayless’ recipe for Flan. I bought his book for some time, but have not tried any recipes yet from it – not easy to get those wonderful Mexican ingredients where I live.

    I am an egg worshipper (think it is one of nature’s miracles for cooks) and love flan. What is wonderful, is that there are a million and one ways to make it. Flan is basically the Spanish word for creme caramel (which is French). BTW, the Spanish claim that Creme Brulee was invented by Catalonians – not the French – . In Spain, it is known as Crema Catalana – But I digress (happens whenever food is the subject!).

    The best flan I have ever had was made by a Brazilian chef. It had the most amazingly delectable, rich texture and mouth feel. I believe it was due to a large number of extra egg yolks. Look’s like Bayless has followed the same idea. This spurs me to try his recipe.

    To share: I live in South Asia. We have a traditional egg custard using coconut milk and jaggery (palm sugar – similar, but richer than brown sugar) in lieu of milk and sugar, as well as spices such as cardamom, clove and cinnamon and cashews thrown in. Another great custard with an amazing fragrance. Thks again, JennEM

  10. Reply
    March 29, 2010 at 5:45 am #

    I have to make creme brulee for my practical , it came out crumbly , is that because it needs to cook a little longer?

  11. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    March 31, 2010 at 5:50 am #

    "Crumbly" to me sounds like it either had the wrong ratio of liquid to egg or was overcooked or at too high a temperature so that you got some scrambled eggs in there. Did you use a hot water bath to control the temperature?

  12. Reply
    April 14, 2010 at 10:47 am #

    That looks so delicious! I must make it for my husband and kids. Roughly how many calories is in this dish?

  13. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    April 14, 2010 at 11:42 am #

    @Ma – approximately 900,000 calories per serving! And worth every one.

  14. Reply
    August 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    What kind of dish did you use? I have seen that the glass dishes will break because of the difference in temperature….

  15. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    August 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    Hey Lindsay – I used a CorningWare type white ceramic dish. Seems to work just fine.


    Hi Michael Natkin,
    Lindsay (Lreine01@yahoo.com) has left you a comment:

    What kind of dish did you use? I have seen that the glass dishes will break because of the difference in temperature….

    Status: Published


  16. Reply
    November 24, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    What does the water do for the sugar? I’ve always just heated sugar by itself until it melts. It does take forever, though, so perhaps the water speeds the melting process?



    • Reply
      Michael Natkin
      November 25, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

      That’s a great question, Miranda. I know it is referred to as a wet caramel as opposed to dry, but obviously all the water cooks off before it caramelizes. It may have something to do with the crystals, or maybe just evening out the cooking. I’ll ask some pastry chef friends and get back to you.

  17. Reply
    April 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    I just took my flan out of the oven and it looks wonderful! The tip for passing the custard thought the sieve really made a difference! Thanks!!!

  18. Reply
    April 16, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    Just an update. My mom says it was perfect and that she could eat everyday. The texture came out perfect – no holes! Velvety and smooth! Thanks again!

  19. Reply
    July 7, 2012 at 3:07 am #

    how much exactly is 6 1/2 c of milk in grams or ml?
    I always have difficulty in converting measurements ‘coz I feel it more precised to use weighing scale when baking. And this time I really need to turn this creme caramel just like how gorgeous yours turned out. I need to make big batches as we will be serving 100 guests in the hotel.

    please help. Appreciate it very much

    • Reply
      July 7, 2012 at 7:18 am #

      6.5 cups = 1537 ml or about 1690 grams (milk being heavier than water)
      Be sure and make some test batches before scaling up to serve 100, especially if you are going to be doing it in ramekins. Enjoy!

  20. Reply
    July 19, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    Is it ok if I use ultra-fine/fine sugar instead of regular sugar? Will using less eggs affect the outcome? Because my family isn’t really a fan of eggs.thanks!

    • Reply
      July 20, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

      Fine sugar (aka caster sugar) is just fine; I wouldn’t use powdered sugar though. Using less eggs won’t go well, they are what sets the custard – use less and it will be too liquid.

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