Flan, crème caramel, whatever. Turns out, there’s only the teeniest of differences. I was struggling to think of a dessert that fit a precise set of requirements – compatibility with the red wine we’d be drinking that night, not chocolate, and most importantly, not requiring any trips to the store. I really thought I’d hit on the perfect idea with flan, and it had even been on my list of things I’m all too eager to cook for some time now. But I kept hitting a snag, in that most of the recipes on epicurious called for sweetened condensed milk, and I didn’t have any.
Finally, I hit upon one that I had all the ingredients for. And I noticed something – the only significant difference between this recipe and Cooks Illustrated’s recipe for crème caramel is the fat content of the dairy. The flan recipe uses almost twice as much whipping cream as milk, whereas the crème caramel recipe uses an equal amount of light cream and milk. This was perfect for me, because I had made the crème caramel before and found the custard to be a little too light for my tastes. Furthermore, I had heavy cream on hand.
Well, I sort of had heavy cream. What I actually had was not one, but two expired cartons of cream, neither of which was the ultra-pasteurized stuff that lasts forever. Eww. But I was determined to make this, and I decided that one of the cartons was passable. I didn’t tell Dave about the questionable dairy in the custard, as I don’t think he’d have been pleased.
Oh, this dessert turned out really well. Much better than the previous time I’d made the crème caramel, when I believe I had overcooked the caramel. This time I fussed over it determinedly, swirling and watching, and even getting a container of honey out so I could judge just when the caramel became the “honey-caramel color” that the recipe instructed. It was perfect. I did have a little adventure with divvying up the caramel among only 3 ramekins instead of the four I was supposed to use, then hurriedly trying to scoop quickly hardening caramel into the 4th ramekin.
After that, everything went pretty smoothly. This really isn’t a hard dessert to make, although the water bath is a bit of a pain. The blood-colored streaks on the ramekins are stains from the maroon towel I used to keep the ramekins stable in the water bath. Don’t they look so appetizing? Oh, and the stab wounds are from my tests to check if the custard was done cooking. Next time I need to be careful not to puncture the caramel. Between the bloody ramekins and the knife marks, I bet these just look so tempting, right? But this is actually an easy, fairly cheap, impressive recipe that can be made days in advance, and might therefore be perfect for a dinner party.
Classic Crème Caramel (from Cooks Illustrated)
CI note: Though you can make one large creme caramel, we find that custards baked in individual ramekins cook faster, are more evenly textured, and unmold more easily. You can vary the amount of sugar in the custard to suit your taste. Most tasters preferred the full two-thirds cup, but you can reduce that amount to as little as one-half cup to create a greater contrast between the custard and the sweetness of the caramel. Cook the caramel in a pan with a light-colored interior, since a dark surface makes it difficult to judge the color of the syrup. Caramel can leave a real mess in a pan, but it is easy to clean. Simply boil lots of water in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes to loosen the hardened caramel.
Crumblycookie changes: I used heavy cream instead of light cream, 2% milk instead of whole milk, ½ of a vanilla bean instead of extract, and vanilla sugar instead of regular sugar.
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons corn syrup
¼ teaspoon lemon juice
1½ cups whole milk
1½ cups light cream
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch table salt
1. For the caramel: In a medium nonreactive saucepan and without stirring, bring sugar, water, corn syrup, and lemon juice to simmer over medium-high heat, wiping sides of pan with wet cloth to remove any sugar crystals that might cause syrup to turn grainy. Continue to cook until syrup turns from clear to golden, swirling pan gently to ensure even browning, about 8 minutes. Continue to cook, swirling pan gently and constantly, until large, slow bubbles on mixture’s surface turn honey-caramel in color, 4 to 5 minutes longer. Remove pan immediately from heat and, working quickly but carefully (the caramel is over 300 degrees and will burn you if it touches your skin), pour a portion of the caramel into each of 8 ungreased 6-ounce ovenproof ramekins. Allow caramel to cool and harden, about 15 minutes. (Can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 2 days; return to room temperature before adding custard.)
2. For the custard: Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat milk and cream, stirring occasionally, in medium saucepan over medium heat until steam appears and/or an instant-read thermometer held in the liquid registers 160 degrees, 6 to 8 minutes; remove from heat. Meanwhile, gently whisk eggs, yolks, and sugar in large bowl until just combined. Off heat, gently whisk warm milk mixture, salt, and vanilla into eggs until just combined but not at all foamy. Strain mixture through fine mesh sieve into large measuring cup or container with pouring spout; set aside.
3. Bring 2 quarts water to boil in kettle. Meanwhile, fold dish towel to fit bottom of large baking dish or roasting pan and position in pan. Divide reserved custard mixture among ramekins; place filled ramekins on towel in pan (making sure they do not touch) and set pan on oven rack. Fill pan with boiling water to reach halfway up ramekins; cover entire pan loosely with aluminum foil so steam can escape. Bake until a paring knife inserted halfway between center and edge of the custards comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer custards to wire rack; cool to room temperature (Can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated up to 2 days.)
4. To unmold, slide a paring knife around entire mold perimeter, pressing knife against side of the dish. Hold serving plate over top of ramekin and invert; set plate on work surface and shake ramekin gently to release custard. Serve immediately.
For one large crème caramel: Follow recipe for Classic Crème Caramel, pouring caramel and custard into 1½-quart straight-sided soufflé dish rather than individual ramekins. Fill roasting pan with boiling water to reach halfway up sides of soufflé dish; increase baking time to 70 to 75 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in center of custard registers 175 degrees.
The Perfect Flan (from epicurious)
1¾ cups whipping cream
1 cup milk (do not use low-fat or nonfat)
Pinch of salt
½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
3 large eggs
2 large yolks
7 tablespoons sugar
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Combine cream, milk and salt in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into cream mixture; add bean. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and let steep 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine 1 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in another heavy medium saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to high and cook without stirring until syrup turns deep amber, brushing down sides of pan with wet pastry brush and swirling pan occasionally, about 10 minutes. Quickly pour caramel into six ¾-cup ramekins or custard cups. Using oven mitts as aid, immediately tilt each ramekin to coat sides. Set ramekins into 13x9x2-inch baking pan.
Whisk eggs, egg yolks and 7 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl just until blended. Gradually and gently whisk cream mixture into egg mixture without creating lots of foam. Pour custard through small sieve into prepared ramekins, dividing evenly (mixture will fill ramekins). Pour enough hot water into baking pan to come halfway up sides of ramekins.
Bake until centers of flans are gently set, about 40 minutes. Transfer flans to rack and cool. Chill until cold, about 2 hours. Cover and chill overnight. (Can be made 2 days ahead.)
To serve, run small sharp knife around flan to loosen. Turn over onto plate. Shake gently to release flan. Carefully lift off ramekin allowing caramel syrup to run over flan. Repeat with remaining flans and serve.