Flan, aka crème caramel, is a whole-egg custard (as opposed to its cousin crème brûlée, which is made with only yolks) featuring caramel poured into the ramekin/vessel followed by the custard. Flan was created to help use excess eggs. The dish we know has many French traditions but is associated primarily with Mexico and Spain.
Without the caramel taste, flan would be just a boring custard dish. You only need one ingredient for caramel: sugar. Everything else is fluff. You can make caramel without water; the sugar will dissolve on its own and start to caramelize. A little bit — not a lot of water — can help the sugar dissolve and caramelize more evenly.
When making the caramel, it helps to have a saucepan with a thick base, preferably several sandwiched layers of metal. You can use an aluminum pan, but it will be harder to clean and the sugar will not caramelize as evenly.
The second pitfall is to avoid crystallization; this is good for rock candy and pralines, but not caramel. Some tricks to avoid crystallization include putting a bowl over the pan or adding acid to keep the sugar from crystallizing. Another easy way is to keep a small bowl of water handy and, if the edges are starting to dry, brush the sides with a little water to prevent crystallization. Once sugar heats to more than 300 degrees, it becomes firm when it cools. As it cooks to between 320 and 350 degrees, the sugar starts to develop color. If the temperature reaches past 350 degrees, it will taste burned and bitter. The exact color is up to you — the darker the color, the stronger the flavor.
Custard is milk and cream thickened with egg; it can range from pourable to firm. When poured over caramel-coated ramekins, the custard dissolves the hard caramel.
Custards can also vary from savory to sweet. Some ingredients added to custard affect the coagulation/cooking temperature of the egg. Salt and acid cause the egg to cook more quickly while sugar elevates the temperature. You might like sweet custard, but too much sugar without the proper amount of egg will give you a custard that never sets. A whole-egg custard is slightly more airy than all-yolk custard and not as creamy. As a whole-egg custard, flan also has a much stronger egg taste that is very distinctive. There are many variations for flavoring: vanilla, citrus, herbs, spices and just about anything else. Let your imagination take over.
While yolks and whites cook at slightly different temperatures when mixed, they cook just below 150 degrees. Add some sugar and the necessary cooking temperature elevates even higher. Cooking temperature verses internal cooked temperature should be carefully considered when cooking something as volatile as custard. Left in a 350-degree oven alone, the egg in the custard will scramble.
Cooking in a water bath helps regulate the temperature of the custard so it will cook more slowly, which allows it to have a smooth, consistent texture. Another consideration is the size of the ramekin; smaller ramekins mean a quicker cooking time.
½ cup sugar
⅛ cup water
½ tablespoon kosher salt
Add sugar, salt and water to a sauce pan and place over medium low heat. Let simmer for 6 to 10 minutes until sugar dissolves and becomes amber. As the caramel cooks, brush the sides down with water as needed to prevent sugar crystallization.
A fresh vanilla bean should be flexible enough to tie into a knot. To cut, begin a half- inch from the end and slice lengthwise to the end of the bean. Using the tip of the knife, flatten one of the sides of the bean. Run the knife down each side of the bean to scrap out all of the seeds.
Whisk each ingredient together, place into a baking dish, and pour into each ramekin. Place the baking dish into the oven and fill the baking dish with water to a depth halfway up the ramekin. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes until the custard shakes as one mass.
Mix all ingredients into a thick-bottomed saucepan. Place pan on low heat and allow ingredients to dissolve. As needed, brush the sides with water if the caramel starts to crystallize. After about 6 to 10 minutes, the sugar will start to turn amber. Pour a small amount into each ramekin. Tilt the ramekins to evenly coat the bottom with caramel and allow caramel to cool. (Recipe will also work with salt removed for regular caramel.)
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup cream
1 cup milk
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla or seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
Preheat oven (325 degrees convection or 350 degrees conventional), mix all ingredients together in a bowl, and whisk or blend with a hand blender. Place the ramekins into a casserole dish or other baking dish. Carefully pour flan batter into each ramekin. Place the dish with ramekins into the pre-heated oven and pour warm tap water to a depth of a little more than halfway up the ramekin.
Bake for 30 to 45 minutes in a convection oven, or 45 minutes to 1 hour in a conventional oven. Tap the custard to check for doneness; once the custard shakes as one mass, the flans are done. Remove the custard and allow to cool.
To plate the flan, run a paring knife around the edge of the ramekin. Place the ramekin upside down on a plate and give it a slight shake to release it from the ramekin. Carefully remove the ramekin and serve.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.