Tips and tricks to making that perfect caramel flan

A good flan is a simple alchemy of eggs, milk and sugar.
A good flan is a simple alchemy of eggs, milk and sugar.NYTimes
During the cooking and chilling, the caramel softens in the bottom of the pan, absorbing liquid from the custard.
During the cooking and chilling, the caramel softens in the bottom of the pan, absorbing liquid from the custard. NYTimes

(NYTimes) - Before opening their restaurant Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina, the American chef Katie Button and her husband, the Spanish chef Félix Meana, cooked and ate all over Spain, especially in the avant-garde restaurants for which that country has become well known.

But even when they apprenticed under the innovative chef Ferran Adrià, who famously deconstructed everything from chocolate cherries to Chupa Chups lollipops, the classic flan was left alone, never foamed, flavoured or spherified. The traditional combination of rich custard and bittersweet caramel, apparently, was too perfect to touch.

“It’s a taboo, to mess with flan,” Meana said. “Here, people go around flavouring it with mint and other things, but that would not happen in Spain.”

  • FLAN DE LECHE

  • INGREDIENTS 

    2 1/2 cups sugar

    3 cups whole milk, or 2 cups whole milk and 1 cup heavy cream

    2 strips lemon zest

    1/8 tsp salt

    6 large eggs

    2 egg yolks

    1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

  • METHOD 

    1. Make caramel: Pour 1 cup sugar and 2 tbsps water into a saucepan, preferably one that is white or light-coloured inside. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, swirling the pan to combine the sugar and water. Do not stir. Let boil until deep amber in color, swirling the pan occasionally to caramelise evenly, about 10 minutes total. Watch the pan carefully after the mixture starts turning golden; it will quickly become light brown, then amber, then dark amber.

    2. Immediately pour caramel into a 9- by -5-inch loaf pan and swirl to coat the bottom evenly. Set aside to harden.

    3. Heat oven to 162 degrees Celsius.

    4. In a saucepan or microwaveable bowl or pitcher, combine milk, lemon zest, salt and remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar. Over low heat or in the microwave, heat through, stirring to melt the sugar. Set aside.

    5. In a blender (or using a hand blender in a pitcher), combine eggs, egg yolks and vanilla. Blend until smooth.

    6. Remove the lemon zest strips from the hot milk mixture. With the blender running, gradually pour the milk mixture into the eggs. Go very slowly at first so that the eggs don’t cook from the heat of the milk. Blend just until smooth. Pour egg-milk mixture into the caramel-lined pan.

    7. Place a 9- by- 13-inch baking dish in the lower third of oven. Carefully place the loaf pan in the baking dish. Pour hot tap water into the baking dish until it comes about halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. (Don’t worry if the oven seems to be losing heat; the flan will adjust.)

    8. Bake 55 to 65 minutes, until flan is set but still jiggly in the center. Remove flan from water bath and cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Refrigerate, uncovered, until cold and firm, at least 8 hours or up to 3 days. The caramel will soften as it sits.

    9. To unmold, run a thin sharp knife around the edges. Center a flat-bottomed platter or serving dish with a rim on top of the pan and, holding both, carefully flip the pan and plate together. The flan will fall onto the plate with a squelch; lift off the pan and let the caramel run all over the top. (If the flan doesn’t come out, flip it back over and rest the bottom of the pan on a hot wet kitchen towel for a few minutes, to melt the caramel.) Serve chilled, in slices.

    Yield: 10 servings

    Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus chilling

He and the Spanish chef José Andrés, who is based in Washington, and perhaps all of the cooks who grew up on the stuff are generally devoted to their mothers’ versions.

Yet Andrés has acknowledged that those flans may not be the most accomplished; often cooked at too high a temperature, they tend to turn grainy or rubbery. In many restaurant kitchens, the cooks do not bother to caramelise the sugar fully, making for a sickly sweet dessert. Also, as Button said, the taste of sweetened egg yolk is not always a fit with modern sensibilities. These things have given flan a bad name in some circles.

I was raised on flan as an after-school treat, served in the Cuban-Chinese restaurants of Manhattan that fueled expats with café con leche, wonton soup and nostalgia. Spooning amber caramel over each cool, creamy bite was part of the delicious ritual.

I became determined to produce a flan that restores the balance of bitter, milky and sweet that makes it a classic. That edge of sharp caramel against the roundness of custard, like the layer of “burnt” sugar on top of creme brulee, is essential. Creme brulee, called crema catalana in Spain, is fundamentally the same as flan, only harder to make. And yet it gets all the glory. 

And I knew bravery would be called for to cook the caramel well past the “golden” stage called for in many recipes, and all the way to amber, mahogany, even coffee.

Like many other Iberian desserts, flan is a simple alchemy of eggs, milk and sugar. Leche merengada, pudim de leite and a dense version made with only egg yolks and sugar called tocino de cielo, or heavenly lard, are all variations on the theme. Citrus is a traditional flavouring in the south; cinnamon in the north; vanilla is a popular modern favourite. Pick any two when making it at home; your flan will be exponentially more delicious.

Flan traveled with the Spanish and Portuguese colonists and took root around the world. It was made with water buffalo milk in the Philippines and topped with guava in the Caribbean. In South America, it absorbed chocolate and dulce de leche.

In tropical climates, where fresh dairy was much harder to come by, flan came to be made with sweetened condensed or evaporated milk instead of fresh milk and sugar. That shortcut has become the standard, to the extent that a flan made with scratch ingredients, like the recipe here, is now called flan a la antigua: old-fashioned flan. Basic flan also goes under the Spanish names flan de huevo, egg flan; flan de leche, milk flan; and leche flan.

On Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) in Spain and Latin America, a cheerfully jiggling flan is nearly always present. In these places, flan is made so often that many cooks don’t need a recipe. Sofia Perez, a food writer in New York, explained how her mother, who is from Spain, does it for Christmas: For every person at the table, use one egg and one tablespoon of sugar. Break the eggs; every time you accumulate eight, add one extra yolk. Measure the total amount of egg in cups, then add the same amount of whole milk. Add the sugar and whisk (she doesn’t bother with scalding the milk or heating the custard), pour into a caramel-coated pan, and bake.

The differences among flans are all about the proportions of egg yolks to egg whites to dairy. Egg whites make flan firmer and bouncier; egg yolks make it richer and softer. Whole milk provides a different mouthfeel from cream. Fany Gerson, the Mexican-American pastry chef and author of My Sweet Mexico, uses egg yolks and half-and-half in her flan a la Antigua.

Button, whose recipe I adapted because of its simplicity, hit on a formula of six eggs plus two extra yolks that produces an ideal texture (though one yolk more or less would be fine, too). Another benefit is that her home-cook-friendly recipe uses a basic loaf pan; a tube pan and a Bundt pan also worked well. I did not want to mess around with ramekins or custard cups. Cooking in a water bath is delicate enough with just one baking dish, never mind six.

Then there is the caramel.

“Caramel is a source of extreme anxiety,” Button said. Unnecessarily so, in her view. Modern American cooks seem to be equally afraid of crystallising sugar, burning the caramel and burning themselves. She recommends starting with a “wet” caramel, which has a little water added to the sugar that quickly turns it into a clear syrup as the cooking begins.

A “dry” caramel — just sugar — produces the same result, but you have to watch it closely to make sure the dry sugar melts evenly. On the other hand, a dry caramel will not crystallise, so that is one source of anxiety eliminated.

In either case, keep an eye on it. You will notice that the bubbling sugar seems to stay white far too long. But it will suddenly turn golden, and the colour changes very quickly after that. A golden syrup is not what you’re after. It needs to be dark enough to cut the round, sweet richness of the custard: Aim for dark amber.

Then pour it in the baking pan and let it harden. During the cooking and chilling, the caramel softens in the bottom of the pan, absorbing liquid from the custard. Then it bathes the flan in sauce as it’s turned out, with a satisfying squelch.

In Cuba, flan and cafe con leche are a natural and necessary combination, like coffee and doughnuts in the United States. But a home cook with a celebration to cater might have to use an entire month’s rations of eggs and sugar to make a single flan.

That is when some turn to women like Juana Cordero, said the food writer Jody Eddy, the author of a new cookbook, ¡cuba!: Recipes And Stories From The Cuban Kitchen, who met Cordero last year in Old Havana.

Cordero makes a dozen flans a day using just eggs, sugar and condensed milk; she caramelises the sugar right in the one-gallon coffee cans she uses as baking pans, holding them over the gas flame on her two-burner stove. For years, she has sold flan to support herself and her eight children.

“Her flan kept the family going through a lot of hard years,” Eddy said. “It’s amazing what people can do with just three ingredients.”