What is flan?
Flan is a delicate baked caramel custard dessert, popular in Mexico and South and Central America. When flan is done correctly, it’s absolutely the most heavenly dessert you’ve ever tasted. When it’s done wrong, it’s miserable (something akin to sweet overcooked scrambled eggs). My husband John was very vocal flan-hater (he used to call it “egg pie”), until he tried this flan. Seriously. After he took a bite of the slice pictured below he said, “WOW … I think this could be my favorite dessert!” So even if you think you don’t like flan, you might want to give it another chance!
So how do you make REALLY GOOD flan?
To make really good flan, there are a few things you need to know. First, how to cook the caramel sauce. Second, the proper flan pan to use. And third, how to cook the flan in a water bath. We’ll go over each point below.
(1) HOW TO COOK THE CARAMEL SAUCE
The caramel sauce that goes with the flan custard is made of cooked sugar. Sounds easy enough, right? It is. But, sugar burns really easily and it gets scalding hot as it cooks. So here’s what you need to know about cooking the sugar: Keep it on medium-low or low heat at all times, stir frequently and watch it constantly. As is explained in the instructions below, you’ll start by pouring 1/2 cup white granulated sugar into a small saucepan over medium-low heat.
As the sugar cooks, it will start to melt, turn a light brown, and form clumps. You need to stir it frequently (almost constantly) at this point to keep it from burning.
Eventually (after about 3 or 4 minutes or so) the sugar will completely liquify and turn a deep caramel color. At that point, the sugar is done cooking and is ready to be poured into the flan pan. Be very careful because the caramel will be VERY hot at this point. Also, the caramel will harden as it cools, so you need to work quickly when transferring it to the flan pan.
(2) THE PROPER FLAN PAN
While it is possible to make flan in various types of pans (for example, a 9-inch round cake pan or in individual ramekins), I’ve found the easiest way to make flan is to use a special flan pan called a “flanera.” You can buy a flanera on Amazon for about $12. This flanera is my favorite.
(3) THE WATER BATH
In order to cook a flan evenly throughout, you need to bake it with the custard in a flanera and the flanera in a “water bath.” Does that sound scary? It’s not. To make a water bath, you simply place the sealed flanera in a large metal or pyrex baking dish, and then add water to the baking dish. (The water should reach about halfway up the flanera, and the flanera should not float.) To bake the flan, you place the baking dish (with water and flanera inside) into the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Just remember: the water and both pans will get very hot, so be careful and use potholders when removing them from the oven.
Once you have the proper flan pan and understand how to cook the caramel sauce and make the water bath, making flan is quick and easy. I hope you’ll try it! It’s definitely my go-to dessert of late. I love to serve it with a big spoonful of sweetened vanilla-bean whiskey-spiked whipped cream (just add a splash or two of whisky, sugar, and vanilla bean paste to heavy whipping cream and whip as usual) … the whisky flavor goes just perfectly with the silky custard and sweet caramel!
Easy Mexican Flan
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1 ¼ cup milk
4 large eggs
For the caramel: ½ cup sugar
Pour the condensed milk into the jar of a blender. Fill the same can with milk, and pour the milk into the jar of the blender. Add the eggs. Blend for 30 seconds and set aside.
To make the caramel sauce, pour the sugar into a small saucepan on the stove. Turn heat to medium-low. As the sugar begins to melt, use a rubber spatula to stir it around. (Be careful: The sugar can burn easily, so keep your eye on the sugar at all times!) Continue cooking and stirring the sugar until it is completely caramelized—i.e., light brown and melted.
Pour the caramel into the flan pan. Use a potholder to hold the flan pan because the hot sugar will make the pan VERY HOT. Using your spatula (while still holding the flan pan with a potholder and your other hand), spread a thin layer of caramel around the bottom and sides of the pan. This will keep the cooked flan from sticking to the sides. You need to work quickly because the sugar hardens as it cools! After the sides are lightly coated, let the remaining caramel cover the bottom of the pan.
Blend the milk and egg mixture in the blender for about 10 more seconds, just to combine. Pour the mixture into the pan with the melted sugar. If you use the pan that I’m using here, it should end up about 3/4 full.
Put the lid on the flan pan and use the buckles to seal it shut. (Be very careful! The sides and bottom of the flan pan will still be VERY hot.) Place the sealed flan pan in a large pyrex baking dish. Pour water into the pyrex dish until it reaches about halfway up the flan pan. Carefully place the pyrex baking dish in the preheated oven. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Carefully remove pyrex dish from oven; the water and both pans will be very hot!
Open the lid to the flan pan and check to see if it is done. The flan is done if it is “set” in the center. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. If the toothpick is not clean or if the flan is very “jiggly” in the center, put it back in the oven in the water bath for about 15 more minutes. I like to overcook mine a bit, just to be on the safe side: if you undercook the flan, it will fall apart when you try to move it to a serving plate. All that to say, if you’re not sure if the flan is set, it’s best to cook it a little more. When the flan is done, take the flan pan out of the water bath and let it cool completely. Then refrigerate the flan (still in the sealed flan pan) for at least 2 hours or overnight.
To serve the flan, you will need a large plate with a lip to hold in the caramel. Right before you are ready to serve the flan, take off the lid to the flan pan. Run a butter knife around the outside edge of the flan to make sure the edges are loose. Then twist the pan back and forth quickly — the flan is loose if it moves freely within the pan. Now place the plate on top of the flan pan where the lid was. Holding the flan pan and plate tightly together, flip the plate and pan over so that the plate is on the bottom and flan pan is on the top. Carefully lift off the flan pan. Your flan should be sitting in the caramel on the plate, ready to enjoy!
Serve cold, with a spoonful of caramel on each plate. Top with whipped cream if desired.