Flan is the Sean “Puffy” Combs of the dessert world – it’s rich, decadent, and goes by a few different aliases: Crème Caramel, Caramel Custard, Flan de Leche, and Leche Flan.
Despite its multiple monikers, Flan is more or less a caramel-topped, custard-based dessert that is prepared using the same simple ingredients of eggs, milk, and sugar. Why all the different names for the same dessert? Well, with Flan, it ain’t where you from, it’s where you at. (That last sentence did not sound as cool as I thought it would. Dork!)
For instance, Flan is the general term used for this sweet treat in the U.S. (Mmm-mmm tasty!) and Spain (Delicioso!). In the U.K., Flan is called Caramel Custard (Right-o chap!), and in France they refer to it as Crème Caramel (Uhhh, um, ménage a trois?). Our friends in Latin America may order Flan de Leche at the end of a meal (!Muy sabroso!). And of course, in my household, and in households in the Philippines, we refer to this dessert as Leche Flan (Sarap!). Whew (I am amazed by my awesome multilingualness!)!
Leche Flan is one of the many legacies of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. And in the Philippines, Leche Flan is usually prepared using either Carabao’s (water buffalo) milk, or a combination of canned condensed milk and canned evaporated milk. Canned milk is used out of convenience, but because of the tropical climate in the Philippines, it is also used (I assume) because it doesn’t spoil as readily as fresh milk.
My grandmother’s recipe for Leche Flan calls for a can each of condensed milk and evaporated milk, a dozen egg yolks, some sugar, and some vanilla. Conversely, my mother (AKA Lightning Lumpia) uses regular old cow’s milk.
Also, instead of baking individual servings in separate ramekins, than say, the French would do with Crème Caramel, Leche Flan is usually prepared in large pans called Llaneras. My grandmother and mother just use round cake pans to make their Leche Flan. After baking, they would then turn the Leche Flan out of its pan and slice it into individual servings.
Since I had plenty of milk and half-and-half, and neither canned nor Carabao’s milk, I decided to make my own version of Leche Flan. I do plan on making my grandmother’s more traditional version sometime in the future, as it is one of my favorites that she makes. My grandmother’s version is particularly sweet and rich, and I’d be interested to taste test real milk vs. canned milk Leche Flans some day.
[By the way, I just realized how strange it is that I decided to use milk and half-and-half because that is what is convenient for me, rather than canned milk being convenient. Is that ironic? I’m not sure. My sense of irony is lackluster. Damn you Alanis! Damn you straight to hell!]
Anyhoo, I also didn’t want to make one huge flan-in-a-pan like my mother or grandmother, I instead made individual servings in ramekins because it would be easier to store and serve for my wife and I.
One last thing I should mention before getting to the recipe: To prevent overcooking, and thus curdling the eggs in your Leche Flan, it should be baked in a water bath. In other words, the vessels containing the Leche Flan itself should be placed in a larger vessel (i.e. a large roasting pan) filled with boiling water. Why the all the trouble with the water bath? To answer this, because I was wondering too, I cracked open my trusty copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, a venerable food science bible. According to McGee, since the water in the water bath cannot heat past 212 degrees Fahrenheit, anything in the pan that the water is touching cannot reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit as well, even in a 350-degree oven! Therefore, the water bath allows for the very gentle cooking of the Leche Flan and prevents overcooking. I’m blinding you with science aren’t I? On to the recipe!
Yields 8 servings (using 8 1-cup ramekins)
For the caramel:
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup water
For the Custard:
3 cups whole milk
1 cup half-and-half
1 cup sugar, divided
1 pinch salt
4 large eggs
6 large egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Before making the caramel, be sure your ramekins are arranged and ready so that you can quickly pour the caramel into them as soon as the caramel comes together.
To make the caramel, place the ¾ cup sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Pour the water over the sugar and quickly stir just to incorporate. Continue to heat the sugar and water, swirling the pan every so often, until a clear syrup forms, about 4-5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the sugar to a boil. Continue to cook until the sugar reaches an amber color. Remove from heat. Quickly pour equal amounts of the caramel into each of the ramekins, turning the ramekins so that they are evenly coated. The caramel will harden in the ramekins, this is OK. Set aside while preparing the custard.
Place the milk, half-and-half, and a half-cup of sugar in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When the milk mixture reaches a simmer, lower heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Whisk the eggs and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl. Slowly add the last half-cup of sugar to the eggs while whisking. Continue to whisk eggs until sugar is incorporated and eggs lighten in color.
When the milk mixture has cooled to warm, temper the eggs with the milk by slowly adding, one ladle at a time, the milk mixture to the eggs, whisking continuously. After all of the milk has been incorporated into the eggs, stir in the vanilla extract. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into another bowl (preferably a bowl with a spout).
Bring a pot of water to a boil.
Fold a clean kitchen towel and place in the bottom of a large roasting pan (this will keep the ramekins from sliding in the pan. If you have a Silpat pad, that works even better than the towel). Place the ramekins onto the kitchen towel in the large roasting pan, there should be at least an inch of space between the ramekins. Pour equal amounts of the custard mixture into each ramekin.
Open the oven and place the roasting pan on the oven door. Carefully pour the boiling water into the roasting pan until the water level reaches at least 1 ½ inches deep. Place the roasting pan into the oven and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until the custards barely wobble in the center of the ramekins when the pan is jiggled. You can also check doneness by inserting a paring knife halfway between the center of the custard and the edge of the ramekin; if the knife comes out clean, the Leche Flan is done.
Remove the Leche Flan from the roasting pan and allow to cool to room temperature. Then cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
To serve, run a paring knife around the Leche Flans and place the ramekin in a shallow dish of hot water for 1 minute. Unmold the Leche Flan by inverting it onto a serving dish.