When I first made flan for a Spanish class in junior high, following a recipe from a Time-Life cookbook checked out of the library, it seemed like the most exotic dessert in the world. Now, compared to trendier sweets, flan seems almost quaint.
Yet, as one of my colleagues remarked recently, flan always satisfies. In fact, it's been doing so since the 1st century AD, when Roman cookbook author Marcus Apicius touted the recipe as a way to use extra eggs.
There are reasons for this creamy, caramel-covered dessert's eternal popularity. The plain but luxurious flavors of eggs, sugar and cream appeal to the pickiest eaters. The custard's smooth texture is likewise a crowd-pleaser. And it's easy enough for a 13-year-old to make for a classroom fiesta.
Revisiting the recipe, I chose sweetened condensed and evaporated milk instead of fresh for two reasons: Historically, canned milk has been popular in Latin America, where flan migrated from Spain along with the conquistadors. And for practical purposes: Milk in a can has more protein and less water than fresh milk, and is less likely to curdle. Puréeing the custard mixture in a food processor, then straining it also contributes to a smooth result, as does baking the custard in a water bath.
Because I sometimes run into trouble with crystallization when I make caramel by boiling water and sugar together, I decided this time to make a dry caramel, placing the sugar in a pan by itself and watching it carefully while it melted into a smooth syrup. Boiling sugar is very hot. My mom must have helped me with this part in 1976. Pour it quickly but carefully into the ramekins. It will begin to harden immediately.
I made individual flans in small ramekins, afraid that a large flan made in a cake pan might fall into pieces when I inverted it onto a platter. Small flans are less delicate and less prone to breakage.
It can be tricky to get the flans in and out of the oven without splashing water on them. To prevent this, line your roasting pan with a kitchen towel, which will provide a nonslip surface for the ramekins (and won't burn after the water is added.) Place the roasting pan with the ramekins in the oven before pouring water into the pan, instead of trying to carry the water-filled pan to the oven. And use a teakettle with a spout, as opposed to a saucepan, to slowly pour hot water into the pan. The narrow spout will help you direct the flow of water into the pan and away from the ramekins.
3/4 cup sugar
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Set 8 (1/2-cup) ramekins or custard cups on top of a clean kitchen towel inside a large roasting pan.
2. Pour sugar into a small saucepan and heat on low until it is liquefied, tilting pan occasionally once sugar has started to melt to ensure even cooking. Resist the temptation to stir, and watch sugar carefully, removing it from heat as soon as it begins to darken.
3. When sugar is a medium-amber color, carefully but quickly pour some into the bottom of each ramekin. Set aside.
4. Bring a teakettle full of water to boil. Turn off and set aside.
5. Combine evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, eggs, vanilla and salt in the work bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Pour through a strainer and into a large glass measuring cup, then pour from the measuring cup into the ramekins.
6. Carefully transfer roasting pan to oven. Pour hot water into pan so it covers the kitchen towel and reaches halfway up sides of ramekins. Bake until centers are still jiggly but not watery, 35 to 40 minutes.
7. Transfer pan to a rack, then use a wide spatula or rubber-coated tongs to lift each ramekin from pan and onto another rack. Let cool completely.
8. Cover each ramekin with plastic wrap and refrigerate flans until chilled, at least 5 hours and up to 1 day.
9. To unmold, run a sharp paring knife around one of the flans. Place a dessert plate over the ramekin, quickly invert, then give a shake to release the custard. Lift the ramekin from the plate and let any caramel left in it drip on top of the flan. Repeat with the remaining flans. Serve immediately.
Makes 8 servings.