Flan with caramelized pears and brandy snaps

Flan with caramelized pears and brandy snaps

[If you linked to this recipe directly, you may have missed the related blog post - an ode to Newfoundland.]

There are some desserts that sound sort of "exotic" - crème brûlée, crème caramel, panna cotta come to mind - and flan. We seem to encounter them most often on a restaurant menu, and while some may simply sigh and enjoy, I always have a little voice inside me that says - "I must try to make that one day!" When it comes to crème brûlée - done, check, nailed it! (Click here for that recipe.)  I have made great panna cotta (though have not shared that on this blog yet...). And then there's flan - though it may sound immodest, I will say I have mastered that (both Spanish-style and Latin), and I am finally getting around to sharing one of these recipes. This Spanish-style recipe comes from America's Test Kitchen (Fall Entertaining, 2008, 2010). I have made it many times and under Notes (below) I share a Canadian adaptation and several tips that make it even more foolproof! The great thing about this dessert is that it is best when chilled 24 hours in advance, so the "day before" prep makes "the day" roll out more smoothly. I tend to serve it with a little garnish - in this case caramelized pears and a crisp (see Notes below.).

When it comes to custard desserts, there is a secret, and it brings to mind the long-ago commercial for Rice Krispies squares where the mother spends ages in the kitchen pretending that she is working hard to make this complicated treat. In fact, these custard-type desserts are shockingly easy to make. As you bask in the the praise of your diners, promise to keep this secret! 

The flan will be baked in a bain marie which is why you'll need a large roasting pan. The custard will be poured over hard caramel, which later melts into gorgeous sauce when the flan is inverted onto your serving platter.

Getting ready:

  • you can make this 24-48 hours ahead

  • unless you have these on hand - shop for 2% milk and sweetened condensed milk (2 x 300 ml cans) and lemon;

  • pull out your roasting pan and fold a light coloured kitchen towel to cover the bottom of the pan (see Tips);

  • adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 F; 

  • remove 5 eggs from the fridge and let them come to room temperature - separate 3 (you will use only the yolks, and can save the whites for other treats) - note: it is a bit easier to separate eggs when they are cold;

  • helps to have an instant read thermometer;

  • 9" cake pan (see Tips)

If you plan to serve this the same day, note that it takes 4 hours to cool and set in addition to the prep and baking time.

1/2 cup sugar (3.5 ounces by weight)

2 TB water

Caramel step. Have the 9" pan ready, close by. This may feel a bit scary the first time you do it... Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a small saucepan, swirling the pan gently, until the sugar has dissolved, about 3 minutes. Reduce to a simmer and cook, gently swirling the pan occasionally, until the mixture has caramelized to a deep, dark mahogany color, 7 to 10 minutes. Understandable that you will watch the clock on this, but pay attention also to your senses and aim for a deep mahogany colour. You will also become aware of a burnt caramel aroma. I suppose it is possible to seriously burn/ruin this mixture, but somehow I have always managed to pull it off the heat just at the right moment. Carefully pour the caramel into the cake pan, being careful not to splash caramel onto yourself (it's hot!) or outside of the cake pan. I usually have to pick up and tilt the pan a bit this way and that to make sure the caramel covers the bottom somewhat uniformly. Cool slightly until hardened. It hardens very quickly!

Your oven is preheated to 350 F. Once the custard is ready you will need to pour boiling water into the roasting pan, surrounding the pan with the custard. Before / while mixing the custard, boil up some water in your kettle - you may be surprised how much you'll need - of course that will depend on the size of the roasting pan.

2 large eggs

3 large egg yolks

1/4 tsp grated zest from 1 lemon

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk; equivalent to 1 3/4 cups (in Canada buy two 300 ml cans - you won’t need all of it to get this amount - see Tips below)

1.5 cups 2% milk

Custard. By hand, or in a mixer, whisk the whole eggs and egg yolks together in a medium bowl until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute. Whisk in the zest, sweetened condensed milk, and milk. At this point, place the cake pan into the still empty roasting pan - just helps to avoid sloshing things around. Pour the custard mixture into the cake pan, and gently place the roasting pan on the oven rack. Being careful not to splash any water onto the pan of custard, pour the boiling water into the roasting pan until the water reaches halfway (no more) up the side of the cake pan (see Tips). Bake until the centre of the custard is just barely set, is no longer sloshy, and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 170 to 175 degrees, 30 to 40 minutes (start checking the temperature after 25 minutes). (See Tips)

Note my tip below about using a turkey baster to remove some of the water if you are nervous about lifting this out of the oven - or perhaps do not feel strong enough. Carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven and carefully remove and transfer the cake pan to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Cover the cake pan (see Tips!!) and refrigerate the custard until completely chilled, at least 2 hours and (make-ahead) up to 24-48 hours.

Serving. As you can see in the photo above, I use a nice serving platter with a lip on the edge - necessary to keep the extra caramel from running right off the platter. (I usually warm the bottom of the pan a bit to make the flip happen more easily.) Run a very thin, small knife around the cake pan to loosen the custard. Invert a large serving platter over the top of the cake pan, and grasping both the cake pan and platter, gently flip the custard onto the platter, drizzling any extra caramel sauce over the top (some caramel may remain stuck in the pan). Serve immediately.

Notes and Tips...

  • Kitchen towel - I suggest "light colured" to stress that the towel should be one that will not release any dye/ colour. The first time I made this I used a red towel and the colour bled into the water. Not a total disaster, unless you accidentally splash some water onto the custard - did i do that???

  • Cake pan - the one I use is 9" diametre and 1.5" deep. I like the one with little handles - makes it easier to lift the pan out of the water bath at the end.

  • Lemon zest - take care to zest lightly, without getting down into the white pulp. I usually use all the zest from 1 lemon. Lemons are shipped with a waxed coating - best to wash and dry these before zesting.

  • Sweetened condensed milk - the recipe calls for a 14-ounce can - fine if you are in the USA, but in Canada this is sold in 300 ml cans, and guess what!? 300 ml does NOT = 14 ounces, which in fact converts to 414 ml. If you prefer, think of 14 ounces as 1 and 3/4 cups. Any way you look at it, you'll need two x 300 ml cans to get that amount.

  • Adding boiling water - trying to lift/move a roasting pan with an inch or so of water can be a tricky maneuver, so it does make sense to add the boiling water after you have the roasting pan on the rack or even on the oven door. The photo here makes it seem easy to pour in boiling water, but I don't trust myself to not accidentally get water splashing onto the custard. So... I protect the custard by vertically holding something wide - a wide, flat spatula, a small plate, etc. and pour against that, thus averting disaster.

  • Water level - the water height - halfway up the side of the cake pan - turns out to be important. If the water is too high, it seems to slow down the baking. I learned this the hard way once. I had baked it for the full time and the custard was still very sloshy in the middle - so I had to keep going and checking to get it right.

  • Removing water - in the event that I have added too much water, or at the end when the custard is done, I like to use one of those old fashioned, plastic turkey basters to remove some water. At the end, lowering the water level a bit makes it easier to lift the still very hot custard pan out of very hot water!

  • Testing for Doneness - I have not found the 170 temperature read to be the best sign of this being done. I aim instead for the moment when the centre of the custard is just set - and in my oven that tends to happen around the 30 minute mark.

  • Cover to store - the original recipe suggested to cover this with plastic wrap. I NEVER do that - at least not since the first time. Here's what happened. Though I felt it was cooled, some condensation seems to form on the plastic wrap, which in turn gets heavy and weighs down, touching the custard. This seems to "break" or crack the custard so that it does not remain a nice whole round when flipped onto the serving plate. Instead, when stored in the fridge, cover it with a plate that will not touch the surface.

  • Egg whites - as I have mentioned elsewhere, egg whites can be frozen. Label the freezer bag with the date and quantity. Need ideas for using egg whites? Check out my recipes for: Almond Clusters, Gluten-free Coffee Almond Cookies, Coconut Macaroons.

  • Serving suggestion: Crisps - the photo shows that I serve this with a "crisp". I have not added any of these recipes yet, but here's one I often use - Brandy Snaps. I have also used Ginger Snaps, or for a colour contrast, try these Chocolate Coconut Crisps.

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