We’ve always believed that baking should be fun, with the best recipes being both entertaining to prepare and delicious to eat.
A lovely caramel flan, among the simplest of desserts, hits the mark because of its “big reveal” before serving. The dish of baked egg custard looks benign, even boring, until you place a plate over it, turn it head over heels and feel the gentle plomp as the dessert releases.
But that’s not even the best part. Lifting the baking dish releases the secret of burnished caramel syrup that pools around the custard. The act transforms what appeared to be a rather sensible dessert into a silken, sensuous finish to any meal.
Bonus fun: Flan improves in flavor when chilled overnight (even two nights), making it an ideal make-ahead dessert.
For such a simple dessert, there are many versions, with various claims of authenticity. With its roots in Latin American culture, where dulce de leche (or caramelized milk), is favored, we veered toward recipes calling for a can of sweetened condensed milk.
For the best caramel results, we adopted the tip of using some light corn syrup to keep sugar crystals from forming as the water and sugar mixture melts into a caramel. A note: This isn’t the high-fructose corn syrup of health concerns. The clear corn syrup on store shelves (Karo is the major brand) is made with a different process.
Making caramel isn’t difficult, but it requires your complete attention because it turns from clear to amber to the color of maple syrup more quickly than you might think. If the phone rings now, let it roll over to voice mail.
Finally, we fiddled with the oven temperature after tracking down the explanations for the tiny bubbles that sometimes appear in a flan, marring its otherwise creamy appearance. Turns out the bubbles are a sign of a custard cooked too quickly, so we reduced the oven temperature and used hot water instead of boiling water for the water bath in which the custard cups bake.
Ah, the water bath. Egg custards must bake evenly, ensuring that the center cooks without the perimeter turning into a rubbery ring. A few inches of warm water provides a moderating insulation. Laying a paper towel in the pan keeps the dishes from sliding into each other.
Garnished with a bit of fresh fruit, flan is both comfort food and elegant dessert. Bonus for some: It’s also gluten-free.
And if you have an extra serving – our recipe makes six – you’ll find that flan raises the bar on having an egg for breakfast.
2 tablespoon water
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3 egg yolks, room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
1½ cups low-fat milk (1 or 2 percent)
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 325 degrees. Place a double layer of paper towels in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan, then arrange six (6-ounce) ramekins or other glass baking dishes in the pan without letting them touch each other.
For the caramel: Pour the water in a small, heavy saucepan, then pour the sugar into the center of the pan. Add the corn syrup and gently stir just to moisten the sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook without stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is clear. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook until it begins to look golden. This will take about 3 minutes. As the mixture continues to cook and darken, swirl or stir gently so it caramelizes evenly. When it’s a dark amber, quickly divide the caramel among the six ramekins. (You can eyeball this; they don’t need to be perfect.)
Let the caramel cool and harden.
For the custard: In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks and eggs, whisking to thoroughly combine, but not so vigorously that the eggs become frothy; this keeps bubbles from forming in the custard. Whisk in the milk, sweetened condensed milk and vanilla until well-mixed. For the smoothest flan, pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a 4-cup measure or another bowl. Divide custard evenly among the ramekins.
Being careful not to splash water into the ramekins, pour enough hot (not boiling) water into the pan to reach halfway up the sides.
Bake the flans for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the centers look just set. Remove dishes from water bath and cool completely on a wire rack.
Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or up to 48 hours.
To serve, run a knife around each dish to loosen the flan. Place a small plate over the top and flip over to release the flan onto the plate. (Some caramel will remain in the ramekin. Fill with hot water to soak.) Garnish with fresh fruit, if desired, and serve.
Per serving: calories: 340; fat: 10 g; sodium: 140 mg; carbohydrates: 52 g; saturated fat: 5 g; calcium: 280 mg; protein: 11 g; cholesterol: 180 mg; no dietary fiber.