In the kitchen good ideas are almost universal, and dishes associated with classic French cuisine often have counterparts in home cooking. For example, the "creme caramel" of the classic repertoire is identical to flan, a custard dessert made and loved in home kitchens throughout the Latin world. Both require slow, gentle cooking in a water bath to set the custard without ruining its texture.
French cooks usually call this dessert "creme renversee," or upside-down custard, which is an apt description. It's a rich custard of cream, eggs and -- usually -- vanilla, though other flavorings can be used. What makes flan or creme caramel distinctive is the caramel sauce that runs over its surface when it's unmolded. It's created by lining the bottom of the dish with freshly made caramel, then baking the custard on top of it. When the custard is chilled the caramel slowly dissolves and becomes liquid, forming the characteristic layer of sauce.
Give Them a Bath
Like any custard, flan requires delicate temperature management. It must get hot enough for the eggs to cook and set the dessert, but not so hot that they'll curdle and separate out of the mixture. The best way to do this is to bake the flan in a water bath, a larger pan filled with hot water. Your oven's temperature is ordinarily 325 Fahrenheit, but the water bath keeps the custard at just below the boiling point. Individual flans baked in small ramekins can take 45 minutes to an hour in their water bath. Flans baked family-style in larger dishes also need a water bath, and can take up to 90 minutes depending on their size. The flan is finished when it's set at the edges, but slightly jiggly in the middle.
Unmolding and Serving
Flan and other custards, such as creme brulee, are all made with the same handful of basic ingredients such as cream, eggs, vanilla and sugar. What makes each one different is the ratio of whole eggs to egg yolks. Creme brulee is eaten from its dish and can be very soft, so it contains lots of egg yolks for extra richness. Flan must hold its shape when it's unmolded, so it uses more whole eggs. The extra egg whites make it firmer, and quicker to set in your oven. The flan must be chilled for at least 4 hours before unmolding, and ideally overnight to let the caramel sauce liquify. Before unmolding run a knife around the edge to loosen it. Set full-size flans in a pan of hot water for a few moments first, to help them release cleanly.
Although the classic vanilla version of flan is the most widespread, the basic recipe and technique can be modified easily to add new flavors. For example, replacing part of the cream with the rich cream from coconut milk gives the dessert a subtle and elegant coconut flavor. Other common variations include chocolate flan or flan made with fresh cheese for added richness. Some variations might need to bake for slightly longer than the classic flan, though the overall range of 45 to 60 minutes for small flans and 60 to 90 minutes for large ones is still a useful guide.
- The Professional Pastry Chef; Bo Friberg
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