Flan is very likely my favorite Spanish dessert: sweet, creamy, with a smooth, thick texture, it is a real treat to eat. Flan is a custard whose origins are maybe French, maybe Greek by way of the Romans – suffice it to say, custards are popular throughout Europe. Custards rely on eggs to thicken the milk, or cream. In America, we’ve come to eat puddings thickened by cornstarch. In fact, it was Andrew Bird, an, Englishman whose wife was allergic to eggs, who invented and marketed the idea of thickening custards with cornstarch instead of eggs. These days in America it’s more common to eat puddings thickened by cornstarch, but in Spain, flan is still thickened the old-fashioned way: with eggs. Custards are very popular throughout Spain, where you can find several different variations: natillas, crema catalana, and tocino de cielo are a few of the most common. The Spanish conquistadores introduced flan to their (now former) colonies, and as such, it’s also a popular dessert throughout Latin America, though each country sports its own variation (the Cubans typically flavor flan with a cinnamon stick; in Argentina, flan is generally accompanied by dulce de leche).
Following is an example of the most typical way to make flan in Spain:
3 cups whole milk
10 tbsp sugar (2 for each egg)
3 tbsp of sugar
a few drops of water
First prepare the caramel: three tbsp of sugar and water. Stir the mixture in a pain over medium heat until the caramel reaches a dark color without burning, so that it has a sweet, not bitter taste.
Pour the caramel into a mold, swirling it around so that the caramel entirely covers the bottom of the mold.
In a bowl, beat the eggs, the sugar and the milk. Pour it into the mold and put it into the oven at 400° F in a water bath for an hour more or less.
After an hour, you can test the flan for doneness by pricking it with a fork. If the fork turns out clean, the flan is done. If not, bake for another 10 minutes.
Once done, take it out of the oven and let it cool to room temperature. When it’s ready, refrigerate it over night, in the same mold. When it’s ready to eat, carefully invert it onto a plate and let the liquid caramel run down the sides.
Milagros once made a coffee flan; the coffee flavor nicely complimented the creamy taste and eggy texture of the dessert. She described to me how she made it: 6 eggs, sweetened condensed milk and a little water, vanilla and instant coffee. She didn’t have exact measurements because she never use measurements: she can tell by sight how much is needed. She told me she bakes it in a water bath in the oven for about an hour, then lets it sit on the kitchen counter until it reaches room temperature, and then it needs to chill in the fridge overnight.
With a little searching, I found a strikingly similar recipe to the one she described to me:
Condensed milk is the secret ingredient that gives this popular Spanish dessert its silky texture.
3/4 cup sugar
1 (14-oz) can sweetened condensed milk (1 1/4 cups)
3 3/4 cups whole milk
5 large eggs
4 1/2 teaspoons instant-coffee granules dissolved in 4 teaspoons hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.
Cook sugar in a dry small heavy saucepan over moderate heat, undisturbed, until it begins to melt. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally with a fork, until sugar melts into a deep golden caramel. Immediately pour into a 9-inch round ceramic or glass baking dish or metal cake pan (2 inches deep) and tilt dish to coat bottom (use caution, dish will be hot). Cool until hardened, 10 to 15 minutes.
Blend remaining ingredients in a blender, in 2 batches if your blender is small, until smooth. Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve over caramel in dish, then transfer dish to a 17- by 11-inch roasting pan lined with a kitchen towel. Cover dish loosely with a piece of foil, then pour enough boiling-hot water into roasting pan to reach 1 inch up side of dish. Bake until custard is set but still wobbly in center when gently shaken and a knife inserted in center comes out clean, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Transfer dish to a rack to cool completely, about 40 minutes. Chill flan, covered, until cold, at least 8 hours.
To unmold flan, run a thin knife around edge of dish to loosen flan. Invert a large platter with a lip over dish. Holding dish and platter securely together, quickly invert and turn out flan onto platter. Caramel will pour out over and around flan.
COOKS’ NOTE: Flan can be chilled up to 1 day (before unmolding).