What Is Flan?
Flan is a creamy custard dessert made with milk, eggs, sugar, occasionally flavored with vanilla, and topped with caramel sauce. Also known as crème caramel, the sweet custard is gently cooked inside a loose caramel base (unlike its crème brûlée counterpart, which features a hard, crystallized caramel layer on top). Upon serving, the baker inverts the dish onto a plate, and the caramel drips down the sides of the set custard, creating a visually appealing dessert for celebrations, holidays, or a special weekend treat.
A Brief History of Flan
If necessity is the mother of invention, one could argue that a surplus of eggs from newly domesticated chickens in the Roman era willed the modern flan into existence.
- The savory dish gets the sweet treatment in Rome. Early custard dishes, made from a basic combination of cooked eggs and cream, were more often savory than sweet—until flado, a popular version made with honey, became the de-facto format in Ancient Rome.
- The Spanish introduce caramel. The Spanish are credited with introducing caramel to the dish. When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, a soft spot for flan came with them, becoming a beloved staple wherever it went, eventually inspiring many regional variations throughout Latin America.
- Latin-American variations. Some recipes call for cream cheese (like Mexican flan de queso, or flan napolitano), some feature a bottom layer of sponge cake (like Puerto Rican flancocho), and others highlight a range of flavors like citrus, coconut milk, passion fruit, liqueurs, or spices, as seen in Portuguese-style pudim flan.
3 Tips for Making Flan
Here are some essential tips for bakers preparing to make their own flan:
1. Choose the Right Vessel.
If it’s your first time making flan, using small ramekins will make it much easier to evenly cook and invert the sweet dessert onto a serving dish. Using a larger baking pan like a loaf pan or cake pan makes for a striking presentation but requires more attention to cooking time and care when inverting onto a plate, as the custard may split under its own weight.
2. Use a Water Bath.
Like a cheesecake, you must cook flan in a water bath, or bain-marie. A water bath involves setting the flan ramekin in boiling water, ensuring a gentle, even heat distribution. To make a bain-marie at home, set the flans in a deep roasting pan or baking dish. Fill the pan with hot water halfway up the ramekins or pan and place it in the oven.
3. Keep It Smooth.
For a little extra finesse, eliminate bubbles in the finished flan by passing the custard mixture through a sieve before baking.
Classic Flan Recipe
Makes8 individual ramekins, or 1 9-inch cake pan
Prep Time10 min
Total Time1 hr 25 min
Cook Time1 hr 15 min
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ cup water
- 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
- 5 whole eggs
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- To make the caramel sauce, combine the sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat. Swirl gently to incorporate—don’t stir—and cook until the sugar begins to boil. Lower the heat, and continue to cook, occasionally swirling, until the caramel is a rich, golden brown, anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Be patient, and stay near the pot as the mixture cooks to avoid burning the sugar.
- Pour the caramelized sugar syrup along the bottom of 8 personal ramekins or a cake pan, tilting to coat the bottoms evenly. Place in a large heatproof roasting pan or baking dish and set aside.
- Combine the condensed milk, evaporated milk, eggs, and vanilla in a blender or food processor and purée until smooth but not too frothy. Pour custard over the caramel in the prepared pan or ramekins.
- Bring water to a boil in a kettle. Transfer the flan to the oven, and fill the roasting pan with water to the halfway point.
- Cover with aluminum foil, and bake until just set, about 1 hour. The finished flan should have a slight jiggle.
- Remove from the water bath and let the flan cool completely before serving, either at room temperature or in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, run a small offset spatula around the bottom of the pan or ramekins and carefully invert onto a serving plate.
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