I love custard. Have I mentioned I love custard before? No? Well I do. My favorite special dessert is crème brûlée, but any good custard has my heart. Add the bittersweet flavor of caramelized sugar and I just swoon.
A perfect flan is dense. You know how egg custards can be - oh how to describe it! - brittle? Baked custards are like silken tofu, they 'snap' when stressed, and break into smaller pieces. They aren't pudding-like in that they aren't glutinous or viscous. Well, the perfect flan has this brittle quality, yet reveals in the mouth the most luscious, dense, velvety texture.
Oh, it’s heaven in a dish.
Looking at all these recipes, you've probably already figured out that the secret to a marvelous flan is the reduced water content in the milk used. This gives the flan its creamy density. While the other recipes in this node undoubtedly make good flan, they all use tinned products, some of which may be difficult to find. This recipe does not. It also shows in the final product. Milk which is freshly cooked down, and not permitted to caramelize in the process has a light, sweet, fresh taste against which I believe a tin just cannot compare. If you are pressed for time, make one of the others. If not, I highly recommend this one.
My sister culled this recipe from the New York Times Magazine a while ago, and tweaked it considerably. It has got to be the single best flan I have ever eaten. I give it to you here in my own considerably more verbose words.
Makes one 8" square pan, enough for a family of 4-5 that knows how to share. (The recipe is easily doubled for a 9x13 pan. If you are having company and this is the only dessert, double it. One will not be enough. Trust me. )
5+ c. whole milk
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 tbsp. vanilla
6 whole eggs, beaten (You can fudge this a little. If you’ve a few extra egg yolks from something, throw in 2 yolks to replace a whole egg. You can replace up to half the eggs this way. This, of course, leads to a truly egregious dessert.)
a pinch of salt.
3/4 c. sugar
3 tbsp. water
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Reduce 5 cups of milk to about 3 cups. This is most easily done by placing the milk in a large nonstick pan over medium heat and stirring constantly until it reduces (see kulfi). If you keep the milk moving enough, it won’t scorch and stick to the bottom of the pan, and it won’t skin over. The more you reduce the milk, the richer the flan will be. If you reduce it all the way to half its original volume, you’ll notice that the milk takes on a slight cream color. You don’t have to reduce it that much, but if you do it’s all good. No matter what, this will take a while, so grab a book.
Once you’ve reduced the milk, measure it. If it has skinned over at all through the process, you’ll need to strain out any clumps first. Measure the strained milk, and add fresh milk so that it equals 3.5 cups. Set it aside to cool a bit. You can also do this step in advance and refrigerate the reduced milk until you’re ready to bake the flan.
Next, make the glaze. Place the sugar and water in a heavy bottomed pan. It is easier to tell when the syrup is cooked enough if the inside of the pan is light in color. Place the pan over medium high heat and cook it, swirl the pot towards the end to prevent burning and even out the color. Let it cook this way until the sugar takes on a deep golden brown color. The deeper the color, the richer the flavor will be. Be careful not to burn the sugar or yourself. Melted sugar is excruciatingly hot!
Pour the syrup immediately into your flan cups or baking pan, and tilt each cup/pan so that the bottom is covered. Again, be careful and handle the cups or pan only by the sides. They will be hot! Set them aside. Don’t be concerned if you hear what sounds like cracking ice or pinging glass, which may happen if you are making a large pan. It’s just the sugar crackling as it cools down and hardens.
Next, once the reduced milk is cool enough that it won’t scramble the eggs, beat it together with the sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Some recipes strain the mixture at this point, but if the eggs are well beaten you shouldn’t need to. My sister certainly doesn’t bother and no one has complained yet!
Pour the mixture into the syrup coated cups/pan. Place the cups/pan into a larger pan and place the whole thing into the preheated oven. Pour warm water into the outer pan to go about halfway up the sides of the custard dish(es). This water bath will coddle your custards and help them bake evenly and gently. If you wish, you can cover the whole thing with foil. This helps reduce skinning over of the custard. I usually don't bother as I don't mind the slight texture difference.
Bake until the custard is just set. A sharp knife inserted in the middle will come out clean, and unset custard won’t pool up through the hole. It takes about an hour when my sister does it in a 8’’ pan. If the reduced milk was cold, it will take much longer. If you are doing individual cups, it should take less time depending upon the temperature of the custard and size of the cups. I just made a batch which was still warm from reducing the milk. The batch filled 11 half cup stoneware ramekins (this can vary a bit depending on the size of your eggs). I placed them about 1.5 inches apart in a large roasting pan, and used hot tap water for the water bath. They were done in half an hour. Note, if you don't have ramekins, 4oz. jam jars work perfectly as well, as they are heat resistant and can be capped when cool for portability.
Let the flan cool before serving; just slightly warm, room temperature, or chilled are all lovely. The caramel sauce comes from the caramelized sugar pulling water from the cooked custard. Because of this, the custard will be slightly denser if all the sugar has dissolved. This process takes a little time, and not all of the sugar may be dissolved by the time you serve the custard. This is OK as the custard is already sweet, and the sugar glaze dissolves readily in warm water (when washing up).
Serving: For cups, run a knife around the sides to break the vacuum, invert a dish onto the cup, and flip it over. It should plop right out. A large pan is impractical to unmold. Simply use a scoop and transfer portions of the custard and the caramel syrup to dessert dishes.
Note: the prepared custard does not transport well when made in a large pan. The layer of syrup under the custard acts like magma under the Earth’s crust. The custard will shift and stress and eventually crack, as it floats on top of the syrup. Still delicious, but the presentation is awful. If you really need to bring this somewhere, either make cups (unmold them just before serving), or if possible, prepare everything in advance and bake it on site. So speaketh experience.
What, still here? Why aren't you off making flan? Takes too long to reduce the milk! Well, can you keep a secret? There's a way to fudge this step but it requires the intrusion of technology, and the finished product doesn't have the same cachet because of it. Simply put, add about 1/3-1/2 c. dehydrated milk to 3 cups of milk, whisk until blended, and top it off so you have 3.5 cups. Proceed with the recipe as above. As long as you use high quality powdered milk and make sure to blend it in thoroughly, no on will know. And, if you use non-fat dehydrated milk, you can decrease the fat content by a percent or two.