Why It Works
- Caramelized sugar lines the baking dish and sweetens the custard for a double dose of toasty caramel.
- Adding the eggs in a blender makes tempering foolproof.
- Baking the custard in a water bath with a foil ring lifting the dish off the bottom of the pan cooks it gently, preventing curdling and overcooking.
When you usually think of dessert for one, it’s something microwaved in a mug or a precious, portioned miniature. But I don’t want a sensible cupcake or tiny pie, I want something I can eat entirely, all on my own. This flan fits the bill. With deep, dark caramel to take the edge off, it’s never too rich or cloying. I even take it one step further by toasting the dairy for the added savory notes of nutty toffee and toast. Sure, you could share—this baked custard can easily slice into sturdy wedges to feed a crowd. But on cloudy days when the husband’s away, I don’t even flip it out of its pan and dig right in with an extra large spoon.
What Is Flan?
A flan is a baked custard often served in Latin America and Spain. Unlike crème brûlée or crema Catalana, where sugar is sprinkled on top of a baked and cooled custard before getting torched into a crisp topping, here we start with the caramel. Caramelized sugar syrup is poured into a dish and dangerously swirled around to coat the bottom in a shimmering golden shell. A custard is then poured on top and, while baking in the oven, it dissolves the caramel shell into a sauce. The sauce waits patiently under the tender custard until you ultimately flip out the flan, or dig in with a spoon to find the glittering pool.
Making the Caramel
Flan is really all about the caramel. Sure, when made right, the custard will be creamy and rich without being dense or heavy, with a little jiggle that melts in your mouth. But the sharp acidity and smokiness of burnt sugar are at the forefront, and I look at the custard as just a vehicle to put the maximum amount of caramel into my body.
I tested the recipe with sugar taken to various degrees of caramelization, from a light clover honey hue to the darkest shades of my heart. The majority of the tasters preferred the flan with the darkest, nearly burnt sugar for the contrast it provided the delicate cream. If you prefer a more subtle and sweet flavor, stop cooking the sugar at an earlier stage. The initial goal of testing the caramel was to provide a temperature guide, which would allow you to reproduce the caramel which most accurately represented my black soul, but unfortunately the amount of sugar used in the recipe creates a volume of caramel that is too shallow to register on a candy thermometer. Your best bet is to let color be your guide and find the caramel that best speaks to you.
There’s more than one way to make a caramel. Some methods melt sugar completely dry—a fast route for a skilled sugar master—while others give the sugar a little nudge in the right direction with a splash of water. I prefer the safety net a splash of water gives me, especially with such a small quantity of caramel, where the extra time is hardly a game changer.
To make the caramel, I add sugar and water to a pot over medium heat and cover with a lid for the first stage. The condensation from the water washes down the sides of the pan, preventing any annoying crystallization. Once the sugar has dissolved into a syrup, I uncover the pan and crank up the heat to watch the magic happen. It’s a quick transformation from a pure white pile to smoldering lava, so keep a close eye on it. I take my caramel to the edge: Once the syrup is well past golden, the room starts to get smoky, and I start to wonder if I’ve gone too far, I pour the caramel onto a dish and quickly swirl it around to coat the bottom and sides of the pan.
Now, don’t wash that pot just yet—there’s still good flavor in there! To top out the caramel-ness of this dish, I also caramelize the sugar in the custard. In the same pot I add some more sugar and cook, but this time to a more conservatively caramelized stage, so it’s sweet enough to flavor the custard. Once it’s fully taken on a sunset hue, I add toasted milk and cream—but the clean, cool flavor of fresh dairy will do just as well.
I bring the mixture up to a simmer to dissolve the caramel before tempering in the eggs and yolks. Typically, hot liquids are tempered into eggs by adding a ladleful at a time while whisking vigorously, but I don’t always trust myself. My lack of coordination has led me to witness many good custards go bad, so I prefer to temper eggs with the help of a blender. I pour the hot milk and cream into a blender and, while running on low, I add the eggs, yolks, salt, and vanilla. The blender leaves me with two free hands to pour in the eggs and dance around the kitchen with jazz hands—show me a whisk that’ll let you do that!
Covering and Baking the Flan
Once the custard is all blended together, I pour it into my caramel coated pan before covering everything loosely with foil or plastic wrap. The oven temperature isn’t high enough for the plastic wrap to melt and it gives you a clear view of the flan while baking. However, if plastic in the oven gives you the heebie-jeebies, foil can step up to the plate as well. Covering the custard not only prevents it from forming a skin, but also helps it cook faster. When testing flans baked covered versus uncovered, the covered flans baked in one-third less the time.
For a tender and supple flan, I bake the custard until it is just set and has reached an internal temperature of 175°F (80°C). Any higher and the flan will become dense and, at the extreme, curdled and grainy. To prevent overshooting our desired internal temp, the flan needs to be protected from the intense dry heat of the oven with a water bath. By cooking the flan in a roasting pan filled with hot water, we guarantee that the custard won’t heat past the boiling point, and we can slowly reach our ultimate temperature. The cooked flan will give you a boisterous wiggle when shaken, while still being set to the touch.
If you want a flan recipe that involves sous vide, our buddies at Chef Steps have got you covered. I love channeling my inner abuela and enjoy mastering a traditional technique, but I also appreciate the opportunity to break out some fun toys.
Cool the flan fully before flipping it out of the pan, or not. This is your flan and you can do with it what you want. Share it with friend and loved ones, or eat it alone in your bathtub, we won’t judge.
How to Make Salted Double-Caramel Flan
For the Caramel:
3/4 cup (5 1/2 ounces;150g) sugar
For the Custard:
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces; 100g) sugar
2 cups (17 ounces; 470g) heavy cream (for toasted cream version see notes)
1 cup (9 ounces; 250g) milk
3 large eggs (about 5 3/4 ounces; 165g)
3 egg yolks (about 1 1/2 ounces; 40g)
1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for iodized salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
1 teaspoon (5g) vanilla extract
Maldon salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C) and adjust the rack to the middle position. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil to use in a water bath during baking.
For the Caramel: In a 3-quart saucepan or saucier, add 3/4 cup (5 1/2 ounces; 150g) sugar and 3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces; 45g) of water. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer over medium heat, about 3 minutes. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove the lid and cook sugar until it caramelizes and reaches the shade of golden you prefer. Carefully pour the hot caramel into a 9-inch pie plate, 2-quart soufflé dish, or another oven-safe, 2-quart baking dish. Immediately pick up the dish to swirl the caramel and evenly coat the bottom and sides. Set aside.
For the Custard: In the same unwashed pot that the caramel was cooked in, add the remaining 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces; 100g) sugar and 2 tablespoons (1 ounce; 30g) water. Once again, cook the sugar until it caramelizes and reaches your preferred shade of golden. Add the cream and milk and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the caramel.
Tempering With a Blender: Pour the caramel, cream, and milk mixture into the pitcher of a blender. Turn blender on to low and, while the blender is running, add whole eggs, yolk, salt, and vanilla.
Tempering Eggs With a Whisk: In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the whole eggs, yolks, salt, and vanilla. Slowly whisk the hot cream mixture into the eggs one ladleful at a time until it is all fully incorporated. Pour into the prepared caramel-lined dish and cover lightly with plastic wrap or foil.
Baking the Custard: Prepare a roasting dish, casserole dish, or another oven-safe pan large enough to accommodate the dish holding the custard by placing a ring of foil or a wire rack inside it to act as a booster seat. Rest custard dish on top and place in oven. Once in the oven, pour boiling water into the roasting dish until about halfway up the side of the custard dish. Bake until the custard is just set to the touch, with a slight jiggle in the center and an instant-read thermometer reads 175°F (80°C) in the center, about 45 minutes. Cool fully in the refrigerator at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. When ready to serve, run a paring knife or offset spatula along the edge to loosen the flan from the dish and flip over onto a rimmed plate to catch the caramel sauce. Sprinkle with Maldon salt to taste. Keeps in the fridge covered for 3 to 5 days.
For an extra layer of savory and nutty flavor, toast the dairy for the flan. Combine the milk and cream with 1 teaspoon (5g) baking soda. For the pressure cooker method, pour the dairy and baking soda mixture into mason jars and gently screw on the lids until just finger tight. Place the lids in a pressure cooker with a rack insert and 1 inch of water. Bring to full pressure and cook for 2 hours. For the sous vide method, transfer the dairy and baking soda mixture to vacuum sealed bags and cook at 180°F (82°C) for 24 hours. Use the dairy as usual in the flan recipe.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 8 to 10|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 21g||27%|
|Saturated Fat 12g||61%|
|Total Carbohydrate 28g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 28g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||2%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|