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Latin American Flan

THE WORLD’S MOST POPULAR DESSERT — SERIOUSLY

Spanish is the primary language spoken in nearly two dozen countries with a total population of 500 million people. And in the Spanish-speaking world, no dessert is as popular as flan. This humble baked custard with caramel is known across the globe, appearing regularly on menus from Madrid to Lima and Havana to Manila.

As you might expect with a recipe that has spread wide and far, there are regional variations. Spain is known for flan that is creamy and lightly set—almost indistinguishable from French crème caramel. (Same recipe, different name.) In most of Latin America, flan isn’t light and quivering like its European counterparts. The custard is far richer and densely creamy, with a texture somewhere between pudding and cheesecake. It also boasts a more deeply caramelized, toffee-like flavor.

The main difference is the milk. In Spain (and neighboring France), fresh milk is the default choice. However, in Latin America, canned milk—evaporated as well as condensed—is more typical. (This change is most likely due to the historical challenges of keeping milk fresh in warm climates before the advent of refrigeration.) So why does this matter? Canned milk is richer than fresh milk because much of the water has been removed. In addition, the cooking process that concentrates canned milks causes the natural sugars and proteins in the milk to brown, which accounts for the light tan color and toffee flavor they lend this style of flan.

But no matter where flan is made, producing a thick layer of fluid caramel that doesn’t harden into a candy-like shell can be tricky. The key to perfect caramel is as simple as turning on the tap.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Loosen the Caramel

The rich layer of caramel on top of the flan is the best part of the dessert—except when most of it sticks to the pan like glue. We add a couple of tablespoons of warm water to the syrup after it’s caramelized to dissolve some of the sugar and keep it runny.

Mix Up the Milks

Evaporated and sweetened condensed milks give flan a distinctively thick, luxurious texture and caramelized notes, but they have twice as much protein as fresh dairy, which can create an overly tight structure. To loosen the texture, we add ½ cup of fresh milk.

Cut Back on the Whites

We loosen the texture further by addressing the protein in the eggs. In short, we eliminate most of the whites. Using two whole eggs and five egg yolks yields a creamy, thick flan. Fewer whites means better flavor, too—the flan tastes less overtly eggy and more rich and creamy.

Think Outside of the Pan

For a family-style flan, you might think a cake pan is ideal, but a wide, shallow flan is inclined to crack. Pull out another pan you probably have on hand—a loaf pan. The deeper walls and narrower surface area produce a sturdier, taller flan—one that is statuesque and will definitely earn you presentation points at the table.

Cook Under Cover and in Water

Custards are often baked in a water bath (the pan is placed in a larger pan and hot water is added) to prevent overcooking. Follow suit here, and to prevent a skin from forming on the top of the custard cover the loaf pan tightly in aluminum foil.

Chill It

Rest the flan overnight to allow the moisture from the custard to dissolve more of the sugar in the caramel, ensuring that once you turn out the flan it will be covered in a substantial layer of runny caramel.

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A loaf pan and specific combination of three milks gives this flan its distinct look and flavor.

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Perfect Latin Flan

SERVES 8 TO 10

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 10 minutes to make caramel
  • 10 minutes to make custard (preheat oven and bring water to boil at same time)
  • 1¼ to 1½ hours to bake flan (hands-off)
  • 12 hours (minimum) to chill flan
  • 5 minutes to unmold flan

Essential Tools

  • Medium saucepan (Something with a heavy bottom and light color like stainless steel is best; avoid nonstick since you won’t be able to judge the progress of the caramel.)
  • 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan for flan (If the only loaf pan in your kitchen measures 9 by 5 inches, begin checking for doneness at 1 hour. The finished flan will be a bit squat.)
  • 13 by 9-inch baking pan for water bath that holds loaf pan
  • Dish towel for lining baking pan (This prevents the bottom of the flan from overheating.)
  • Fine-mesh strainer for removing any clumps of egg
  • Aluminum foil for covering loaf pan
  • Instant-read thermometer for judging doneness
  • Paring knife for loosening flan from pan
  • Platter with raised edges for holding flan and caramel

Substitutions & Variations

  • You may substitute 2 percent milk for the whole milk, but do not use skim milk.

This recipe should be made at least one day before serving. Serve the flan on a platter with a raised rim to contain the liquid caramel.

  • ⅔ cup (4⅔ ounces) sugar
  • 2 large eggs plus 5 large yolks
  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 1½ tablespoons vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  1. Stir together sugar and ¼ cup water in medium heavy saucepan until sugar is completely moistened. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, 3 to 5 minutes, and cook, without stirring, until mixture begins to turn golden, another 1 to 2 minutes. Gently swirling pan, continue to cook until sugar is color of peanut butter, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and swirl pan until sugar is reddish-amber and fragrant, 15 to 20 seconds. Carefully swirl in 2 tablespoons warm tap water until incorporated; mixture will bubble and steam. Pour caramel into 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan; do not scrape out saucepan. Set loaf pan aside.
  2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Line bottom of 13 by 9-inch baking pan with dish towel, folding towel to fit smoothly, and set aside. Bring 2 quarts water to boil.
  3. Whisk eggs and yolks in large bowl until combined. Add sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk, vanilla, and salt and whisk until incorporated. Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer into prepared loaf pan.
  4. Cover loaf pan tightly with aluminum foil and place in prepared baking pan. Place baking pan in oven and carefully pour all of boiling water into pan. Bake until center of custard jiggles slightly when shaken and custard registers 180 degrees, 1¼ to 1½ hours. Remove foil and leave custard in water bath until loaf pan has cooled completely. Remove loaf pan from water bath, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and chill overnight or up to 4 days.
  5. To unmold, slide paring knife around edges of pan. Invert serving platter on top of pan and turn pan and platter over. When flan is released, remove loaf pan. Using rubber spatula, scrape residual caramel onto flan. Slice and serve. (Leftover flan may be refrigerated for up to 4 days.)

ALMOND LATIN FLAN

Reduce vanilla to 1 tablespoon and whisk 1 teaspoon almond extract into egg-milk mixture.

ORANGE-CARDAMOM LATIN FLAN

Whisk 2 tablespoons orange zest and ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom into egg-milk mixture before straining.

COFFEE LATIN FLAN

Whisk 4 teaspoons instant espresso powder into egg-milk mixture until dissolved.

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