Flan is an amazing dessert whose name has been sullied by countless abuses. You can buy premade powders, single-serve containers, or order it from many restaurants where the only thing that these tasteless, gelatinous mounds have in common with actual flan is the general shape and color. Flan should not be flavorless and it should not resemble jello. Flan is actually a sweet, rich, delicate custard with a dark caramel sauce. To stand up to those dark caramel flavors, you add some subtle savory spices to bite back, giving the dish a surprisingly dark and complex flavor.
I’m glad to say that this dish is actually authentic (you know, in that passed-down-from-a-friend-from-her-family sort of way)–not a common thing on this blog! Of course, authenticity would demand that this dessert be Spanish in origin, but the more I look into it, the more things point to French, so I’ll just take the easy road, call it “Mediterranean,” and claim authenticity. 😉 So with all of this huffing about what a flan should be, if you’re not sure whether you’ve had a “real” flan before or not, I think its a safe assumption to say that you haven’t–you would know. I’ve tweaked the spices a little bit to give it a more interesting bite, and then, to give it a delicious aroma and a very seductive color, I added a pinch of the most precious spice out there: saffron (currently worth about $1,000/lb!). This seductive saffron is the reason for this also being my entry in this month’s Think Spice, hosted by Sunita over at Sunita’s World.
- 2 cups finely granulated sugar
- 6 eggs
- 1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- dash of nutmeg
- smaller dash of cinammon
- good sized pinch of saffron
Firstly, we need to make the caramel sauce, which is a wonderfully simple step. Simply put 1 cup of sugar in a saucepan on medium-high heat. Periodically, stir this by shaking the pan (don’t bother with a spoon–you’ll be making clean up difficult for yourself, I promise). If you’ve never done this before, don’t be alarmed when half way through, suddenly odd chunks seem to form in your sugar. Just keep on tossing it around, because if you let it sit, it will burn. After about 10 minutes, your sugar will totally melt down into caramel, and when it does, you need to get it off of heat immediately or you’ll add a bad, burnt taste. And be clean–if you splash caramel on something, it will harden very quickly and be a real pain to clean up. At this point, the caramel wants to recrystallize and it will do so at the first chance you let it.
So with your sugar carmellized and off of the heat, put on a pair of oven mitts, and quickly (but very carefully–that stuff is hot!) pour the caramel into the 9-inch pie pan you intend to cook your flan in (or individual ramekins if you’re going that route. I don’t have any, so its an easy decision for me 😉 ). Then, tip and rotate the pie pan, doing your best to coat the bottom and the sides with the caramel as best you can. In less than a minute’s time, you’ll notice the sugar isn’t nearly as liquidy. Place your pie pan into the fridge and let it cool off for about 15 minutes.
While you’re waiting, now is a good time to preheat your oven to 350?F. Also, fill a pan (larger than your pie pan) with about a half inch of warm water and put that in the oven.
Now, let’s get the custard ready. In a bowl, simply combine all of the remaining ingredients: 1 cup of sugar, the eggs, and everything else. Do your best to crumble the saffron a bit so that its not just long strands as this will make it easier to integrate better throughout the custard. Then, with a mixer (or some elbow grease), whisk everything together for about a minute so things get well mixed and a little frothy.
At this point, take your pie pan out of the fridge and pour your batter into the pan. If you hear crackling sounds, that’s the solid caramel so don’t worry–you didn’t do anything wrong. 😉 Now, place your pie pan in the water bath in the oven. We’re using a water bath as a means to temper the heat of the oven. This allows your flan to be cooked much more evenly throughout.
Let this bake for about an hour. When its done, the delicate, sweet smell of saffron should pour out of the oven and the top of your flan should no longer be liquidy (give it a gentle shake). You’ll also conversely notice that your caramel is liquidy again, and it will stay this way forever more, which is pretty neat compared to earlier. Recall that as soon as the caramel cooled off, it had recrystallized and was rock hard (if you didn’t notice, go check out the saucepan you cooked it in). If you’re curious about the complexities of carmellizing sugar, I found this to be pretty interesting. Basically, the core idea behind the caramel remaining liquidy now is that mixing fat in with the sugar can prevent the carmellized sugar from recrystallizing, keeping it in that desirable liquid state. So given that, recall that you just baked that caramel alongside your custard for an hour, adding the magic ingredient (milk fat) to the carmellized sugar.
Anyways, science aside, remove your flan from the oven and let it cool off in the fridge for at least 30 minutes (I’d recommend more like 2 hours). If the flan is not cold when you go to eat it, it will taste like a weird omelette and not an amazing dessert, so give it the time it needs in the fridge.
On to the final and most important step: the flip! Now that you’re done and committed to serving flan as your dessert, this is your chance to ruin everything at the last possible moment. But to get it right is the perfect presentation: a nice, round, clean looking custard with the perfect drizzling of dark caramel sauce all on top of it with a vibrant, bright yellow interior. Yes, very sexy.
First, very carefully run a knife along the edges (be clean, try not to mark up your flan!) to break any vacuum kind of seal the flan has made with the sides of your pan. Then, lay a plate (or whatever you’re serving this on) on top of your pan, and in one quick, confident motion, flip the whole thing upside down. Ideally, it will have all plopped out cleanly and in one piece–the flan and the drippy caramel sauce. If nothing seems to have happened, carefully flip again back to how you started, wipe the sweat off of your brow, and work those edges with your knife a little more because there’s some major suction holding that thing in your pie pan. Be careful and be patient.
Cut a slice like you would a cheesecake and enjoy!