Flan may be the default dessert throughout Latin America, but I didn’t actually grow up eating it because my mother did not make it. Don’t get me wrong; Mom is a champion baker and made plenty of other desserts, including some ridiculously complicated ones I had the temerity to demand for certain birthdays. As she explained over Christmas dinner preparation this year, though, flan was her mother’s territory and therefore ground she feared to tread.
Since Grandma only visited once a year and never once made flan that I can recall, I didn’t have much interaction with flan until my teens, when we moved to Mexico. As it could be had in any restaurant there, I enthusiastically embraced its wobbly, burnt-caramel ubiquity as both a comfort food and a special indulgence. Ever since then, even if I suspect from the quality of the rest of the meal that it won’t be particularly good, I’ve had a hard time passing flan up when I see it on a restaurant’s menu.
Although some might consider them basically the same thing, I don’t feel the same way about creme brulee. I’ve always found creme brulee to be too rich, too pasty, too bland and boring under that crackly sugar. I regularly find that all that butterfat just throws the ratios out of whack and drowns out the vanilla bean or lavender or yuzu or whatever flavoring-du-jour the pastry chef tried to infuse into it. Flan, on the other hand, is the perfect balance of eggy and creamy. Even a meh flan is enjoyable.
This flan, the home version of the best flan I’ve ever had, is not remotely meh. I ate it twice while completing an internship in Washington DC over the summer; the first time at Jose Andres’s flagship restaurant, Jaleo, and the second time at the cafe of the National Gallery of Art, which he took over in conjunction with two exhibits of Spanish art. The Jaleo version was dolled up with foams and garnishes while the Cafe España one was served perfectly plain, but both times the custard was smooth, creamy, golden perfection accented by a smoky-topaz caramel so dark it was seriously flirting with danger. It was the complete opposite of all those profoundly disappointing brulees, and what every half-assed Mexican restaurant flan aspires to be.
In passionate love, I demanded that the waiter find me one of the last remaining printed recipe brochures (available here if you also want a fabulous gazpacho recipe and a chicken empanada I obviously can’t vouch for, but which is probably great). I then bided my time until the next big family gathering, and insisted on making this in addition to our non-negotiable Christmas dessert, a chocolate buche de noel we’ve had as long as we’ve been north of the equator. While I can’t claim to have executed it as flawlessly as Jose, I daresay I did Mama Andres, whose recipe it is, credit. I also think Grandma would have approved.
If you’re at all a flanatic like me, you absolutely must try this. Apart from the bit involving molten sugar, which is always a little intimidating given the high burn potential, it’s a fabulously easy recipe. If the burnt sugar bit really freaks you out, you can and must make this anyway. It won’t be exactly the same, but you could just spoon some dulce de leche or store-bought caramel sauce in the bottom of the ramekins before pouring the custard over. You could also try jam, as Alton Brown suggests.
Flan al estilo de la madre de Jose Andres
(Adapted from Jose Andres, Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America)
For the caramel:
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup warm water
For the custard:
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 strip lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cook the cup of sugar for the caramel in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until it melts and begins to brown. Continue cooking until the sugar becomes dark brown, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Remove the pan from heat and carefully add the warm water, standing well back to avoid the sputtering. Return pan to the heat and continue cooking about 5 minutes, until dark and thick, like grade-B maple syrup.
Divide the caramel between four large or six small ramekins, swirling to coat the bottoms and halfway up the sides. Be extremely careful not to let the sugar touch your skin, because caramel will stick like napalm and cause scary third-degree damage in a very short time. (If you’re worried and/or clumsy like me, keep a bowl of ice water next to you and plunge any exposed bits in immediately to stop the burning.)
Line the bottom of a high-sided 9×13 baking pan with a clean kitchen towel and set the coated ramekins in the pan.
Preheat oven to 275 F.
Combine the half-and-half, heavy cream, lemon zest, cinnamon stick and 3/4 cup sugar in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, removing the pan from the heat just as contents reach a boil. (You could also do this in a liquid measuring cup in the microwave.)
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and yolks. Pour a bit of the hot cream gently into the eggs to temper them, whisking vigorously, then whisk in the rest of the cream. Strain the mixture into a large liquid measuring cup, stirring in the vanilla extract. Fill the caramel-lined ramekins with the custard.
Set the pan with the filled ramekins onto the middle rack of the oven. Carefully fill the pan with enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins, making sure not to drip any water into the custards.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the flans look set but the middles are still a bit jiggly. Remove from the oven and lift the flans out of the water bath to cool to room temperature. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely cold.
To serve, run a knife along the edges of the flans to loosen them. Place a dessert plate upside-down over the top of a ramekin, and invert. Shake gently but firmly until the flan drops onto the plate, and lift the ramekin up to let the caramel drizzle down onto the custard. Repeat with the remaining flans.
The recipe as originally written was for six servings, but you should use quite small ramekins or custard cups if you want any height in your flan at that quantity. Dividing the custard six ways among regular-sized ramekins will result in rather flat, but still lovely, flans. If you want taller, more substantial ones, make just four flans. You could also make a single, bigger flan, but in my experience, it is much harder to tell when a bigger one is done, and it’s also harder to unmold without cracking the flan or spilling caramel sauce on your work surface or yourself.
His Lordship’s brother, who graciously hosted us as he does every Christmas, does not have ramekins, so I made these in small oven-safe soup bowls. It worked well, as you can see.
You can make a coconut variation by substituting coconut milk for some or all of the dairy and leaving out the cinnamon and lemon. I did this on Wednesday to use up the two leftover yolks from my birthday souffle, because that’s just the kind of crazy I am.