Growing up, I thought pudding was something that was made by taking a package of Royal Pudding and Pie Filling™ and mixing in the required ingredients. I always had a sweet tooth, but I think it took me quite a few years before I tried butterscotch pudding as an adult since the processed taste still lingered in my memory.
Rice Pudding, on the other hand, was something I always knew was made from scratch. My grandmother, Freida Miller (a/k/a Nana), would have a big glass bowl ready for us to dig into. Occasionally at Nana’s house there were small glass cups filled with chocolate custard, but I do not remember seeing those made and therefore I do not know if they were from a package or made from scratch.
As an adult, I learned about crème brulee. Ah, that was a wonderful day indeed, savoring the smoothness of the custard with the sugar that is caramelized on top. I love the variety of flavors that crème brulees are made with – even the more savory ones, but the traditional flavors are still my favorites.
Yet with all the love of custards, puddings and crème brulees, it was not until my brother married his wife that I learned about a real treasure, flan. Millie is from a Cuban family, and they all seem to know how to make the most incredible dishes. A meal with Millie’s family is more like a feast, sometimes complete with the whole roasted pig.
At the end of one meal, Millie brought out this round pan that had locks on the side of it to hold the top in place. I was lost. Then to my amazement, Millie took the lid off, put a plate of the top and flipped the whole thing over. After giving it a firm shake, Millie lifted the bottom off this incredibly creamy custard-like dessert, but instead of the sugar being caramelized and crunchy on top, like a crème brulee, it was dripping over the side begging to be slurped up. All that I wanted to do was sit with a spoon and dig in, drenching each bite with a little bit more of the syrup.
When I came home from that trip, I called Millie and asked for the recipe. She told me that it was Rosalia Viqueira’s (Millie’s mom) recipe and gave me the instructions on how to make it. I ordered two of the flan pans online and set out to replicate the amazing dessert I had up north. I was a tad nervous about caramelizing the sugar. Do I stir it all the time? Do I leave it alone? How dark is too dark? Will it get darker as it bakes?
What I realized was that it really is not a difficult recipe to make. To the contrary, in fact. The caramelizing took longer than I thought it would. I guess I went wrong thinking that once I put the sugar in the pan and turned the stove on, it would be fast. I also learned very quickly that the flan pans are very thin, and therefore I needed to use a cloth or oven mitt when swirling the caramelized sugar around the pan.
After that, everything was easy as can be. The custard ingredients are mixed in one bowl and then poured into the flan pan, which goes into a water bath and is baked for one hour. I think the trickiest part to making flan is lifting the flan pan out of the scalding water so it can cool. Patience and a steady hand are needed, but I am always up for a challenge.
One other great thing about flan is that it sits overnight. I entertain quite frequently, and having a beautiful, delicious dessert that is made ahead of time is a real bonus in my book.
I was a bit curious about the origins of flan. Living in South Florida, flan is a staple at many Central and South American restaurants, which could be an explanation for why I never made this discovery in Cleveland. Yet flan recipes were found in ancient Rome, both the sweet and savory kinds. Through the centuries, many things died out. Fortunately, flan is not one of them.
The Spaniards made variations of flan as we know it, mostly sweet ones with the caramelized sugar. When Christopher Columbus made his way over to America, flan did as well, continuing down through Central and South America, for which I am very thankful.
I may be a bit slower on discovering flan than the explorers were discovering America, but now that I have found it, flan is a constant dessert in my home. Thank you Christopher Columbus!
- ¾ cup sugar
- 4 eggs
- 1 – 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
- 2 cans whole milk (using the can from the sweetened condensed milk for measuring)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350°. Set aside flan pan and oblong pan that flan pan will fit into.
- Place sugar in small sauté pan. Cook over medium low heat until the sugar caramelizes, stirring periodically. Nothing will happen for about 7-10 minutes, then the sugar will harden into little balls until it very quickly caramelizes. Immediately pour the caramel into the flan pan. Swirl the caramel on the bottom and up ½ to ¾ of the side of the pan. Be careful, as it is very hot at this point. Set aside.
- Gently beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl, using a whisk. Add sweetened condensed milk, milk and vanilla and whisk until well combined. Pour mixture into flan pan. Cover and lock the flan pan lid into place. Tie a large piece of butcher’s twine around the flan pan as though it were a gift box (there will be an ‘x’ pattern at the top of the lid.)
- Lifting by the string, place flan pan into a larger pan and pour hot water into the pan until the water is halfway up the flan pan. Keep the bow of the twine out of the water to avoid burning when removing.
- Bake in 350° oven for 1 hour. Using pot holders, hold the twine to lift the flan pan out of the water. Place the flan pan onto a dishtowel to dry off the bottom and then use pot holders to transfer the pan to a cooling rack.
- Cool completely on cooling rack. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Just before serving, lift off top and run a small spatula around the side of the flan. Place serving plate (use one with a lip) over top of flan, turn over and shake the flan out of the pan. Remove pan and allow the caramel to drip over flan. Slice and serve.
- Betsy’s Tidbits:
- Flan pans are available at some specialty food stores and through GourmetSleuth.com .
- The spatulas are used to remove the flan pan from the hot water because oven mitts will end up wet from the water and burn your hands.