Small, Good Things: A Condensed History of Flan

By Joe Dizney

We have the Romans, borrowing kitchen skills from the Greeks, to thank for the alchemy of egg-and-milk-based wonders known as custard, or flan.

We have the French to thank for crème and crème caramel, the haute version of custard in which caramelized sugar is poured into an uncooked, sweetened, vanilla-flavored base.

Crème caramel is sometimes cooked stovetop but more often it’s prepared in the oven. It additionally usually calls for a water bath — the partial submersion of the cooking pan in another pan partially filled with hot water. This is a culinary fail-safe as the process can be a delicate operation: temperature fluctuations of just 5 to 10 degrees can lead to curdling. (The water bath slows heat transfer and makes it easier to control the process.)

The objective is to obtain smooth-but-set cream custard with a liquid caramel base. Once the custard is set and cooled, it is inverted onto a serving plate and the caramel sauce, now on top, spills down the sides, hence the alternate French name, crème caramel renversée. Flan is a French word used to describe the exact same dish. It was borrowed from Spain.

Maple Pumpkin Flan (Photo by J. Dizney)

This recipe, adapted from the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, uses sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk, meaning you don’t have to use sugar (the caramel sauce supplies plenty) or heavy cream (which she replaces with mascarpone).

For this version, maple syrup adds a Northeastern accent and the canned pumpkin puree is superior for this recipe as it contains less water and fiber. Do not substitute canned pumpkin pie filling, which is sweetened and spiced. Spiced pecans are an optional but worthy holiday garnish (see the recipe, below).

Maple Pumpkin Flan

For the pumpkin flan:

14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
12 ounces evaporated milk
1 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree
1/2 cup mascarpone
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon maple extract (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Grated zest of one orange (organic, unsprayed)
Five-Spiced Candied Pecans for garnish (optional, recipe below)

For the maple caramel:

3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup dark amber maple syrup
1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt (kosher or sea)

  1. For the caramel: Add sugar, maple syrup and water to a small, heavy-duty saucepan. Swirl pan to combine the ingredients — do not stir. Cook over medium without stirring until a candy thermometer reads 230 degrees. (Be sure to cook to 230. If you overdo it, add a tablespoon or two of water to lower temperature and cook it back again to 230.) Immediately remove from heat, sprinkle in salt and pour into an 8-inch cake pan with sides at least 2 inches high. Don’t use a springform pan. You want a sealed and, if possible, seamless inside edge. Dedicated steel flan pans are available and allow you to make the caramel sauce directly in the pan. Cool to room temperature (about 30 minutes).
  2. For the flan: Preheat oven to 350. Using an electric mixer with a whip attachment (or by hand in a medium-sized bowl with a whisk), mix sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, canned pumpkin and mascarpone until smooth. Whisk in eggs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, allspice and orange zest.
  3. Place cake pan with caramel in a large roasting pan. Carefully and slowly pour the custard over the back of a large spoon or spatula into the cake pan, over the caramel. Pouring it over a spoon or spatula will disperse the liquid so as not to disturb the caramel as it would if poured in a steady stream.
  4. Carefully add boiling water to the roasting pan to reach halfway up the outside of the cake or flan pan. Bake on middle rack of oven until just barely set (about 70 to 75 minutes). When done it will be slightly jiggly in the center and set around the edges. Remove pan from the water bath and let cool completely on a wire rack. Chill 3 to 4 hours or overnight.
  5. Flan can be made up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated. Before serving, run a sharp knife around the outside of the pan to release it. Lay a serving platter upside down over top of the pan; using both hands, quickly flip pan and platter over together. Holding both, shake to release flan. If it doesn’t release easily, break the airlock on one side of the pan near an edge with a finger or thin knife. You should feel — and hear — the flan release. Don’t rush it. Slice into wedges. Garnish with whole or chopped Five-Spiced Candied Pecans. Happy holidays.

Five-Spiced Candied Pecans

Makes 2 cups

4 teaspoons vegetable oil
2½ tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 teaspoons water
1½ teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups pecan halves
¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium saucepan, warm oil over medium-low heat. Add dark brown sugar, water, five-spice powder and black pepper. Stir until sugar dissolves and mixture bubbles. Add pecan halves and cook, stirring, until pecans are thickly coated (about 3 minutes). Spread pecans evenly on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle salt over all and bake until fragrant and crisp (about 8 to 10 minutes.) Cool completely and store in an airtight container.

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