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recipe: Flan
Flan, also known as crème caramel, is a popular dessert in many parts of the world, including Europe, the Caribbean, the Americas, and the Philippines. A baked custard, its essential ingredients are eggs, milk, and sugar. As a custard bakes, the egg proteins form a network that traps liquid, creating a gel. Recipes for this smooth, creamy treat abound, and for good reason: It’s happy to accommodate substitutions, changes in proportions, and the addition of flavorings, offering many opportunities for experimenting.    
What’s a gel?

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What Do I Need? .
For the caramel syrup Did You Know?
The origins of flan can be traced to early Roman times. The invention of baked custard—containing eggs, milk, and honey—is attributed to Marcus Apicius, a cookbook writer from about the first century. (Translations of his work are still available today.)
3/4 cup sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons water
 
For the custard
2 cups whole milk
1 cup half-and-half
2 vanilla beans
 1 teaspoon vanilla extract  
5 large eggs  
1/3 cup sugar  
 
1-quart saucepan  
 a soufflé dish with 3-inch sides or 6 small ramekins  
• 2-quart saucepan with cover  
• a wire whisk  
• a sieve  
• 2 mixing bowls  
• a paring knife  
• a baking pan with 2-inch sides (for water bath)  
a large serving plate or 6 small serving plates  
 
What Do I Do?

 

For the caramel syrup  

1. Have your soufflé dish or ramekins at hand. Put the sugar in the 1-quart saucepan and stir in enough water to moisten all the sugar. Stir gently over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Then bring to a rapid boil. Heat without stirring but occasionally swirling the pan until you see a rich golden color.

The reason not to stir the mixture once it is boiling? Stirring will cause the sugar to form crystals, which will create a grainy texture.

2. Quickly pour the caramel syrup into the soufflé dish or ramekins, tilting the dish to cover it evenly.

   
For the custard  

1. Preheat the oven to 325° F.

 
   
2. Put the milk and half-and-half into the 2-quart saucepan, add the vanilla beans, and heat to a boil. Cover and remove from heat; leave for 5 minutes.
   
3. Put the eggs in a mixing bowl and gradually blend in the sugar, stirring with the whisk until the sugar dissolves. Don’t incorporate air into the mixture.
   
4. Remove the vanilla beans from the milk/cream mixture, and slowly pour the milk into the eggs while stirring gently with the whisk.
Tip
Vanilla beans can be reused, although, without the seeds, the flavor will be less intense. Just wash and dry them, then store them in a glass jar.
 

5. Put the sieve over the second mixing bowl and strain the milk/egg mixture through it.

Why do I need to strain the milk/egg mixture?

6. Wipe any milk off the vanilla beans and slit them lengthwise. Use the tip of the knife to scrape out the black seeds from the beans. Add the seeds to the custard mixture along with the vanilla extract.
   
7. Pour the custard into the soufflé dish or ramekins.  
   

8. Place your dish or dishes in the baking pan and put the pan in the oven. Add hot water (not boiling; just hot tap water) until it reaches about halfway up the sides of your dish or dishes. Bake for about 35 minutes if you’re using ramekins; about 50 minutes if you’re using a soufflé dish. Check the water bath from time to time to make sure it isn’t boiling; add ice cubes if necessary.

Why do I need a water bath?

9. Your flan should be done when it’s lightly colored and firm to the touch but not solid. To double check, stick the blade of your knife in the center of the flan and halfway down; the blade should come out clean. Carefully remove the baking pan from the oven, then remove the flan from the water bath. Let the flan cool to room temperature, then chill, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
   
10. To remove your flan, run your knife between the side of the custard and its container. Put a serving plate on top of the dish and quickly invert the two. Then lift the dish straight up.
   
What Else Can I Try? .
  • Is whole milk plus half-and-half too rich for you? Not what you happen to have in your fridge? You can experiment with any milk products. Some recipes, for instance, call for condensed milk, including the sweetened or flavored varieties.

  • The seeds from vanilla beans provide a visual addition to your flan, as well as adding flavor. But vanilla beans are expensive! You might want to use them only for very special events, increasing the amount of vanilla extract for more ordinary occasions. You might experiment with other favorite flavors, too, such as coconut and lime. You can also flavor the caramel syrup with a tablespoon or so of cognac or various liquors.

    Why does adding fruit change the cooking time?

  • The yolks of the eggs contribute to both the smoothness and the stability of a flan, and many recipes call for the addition of extra yolks. If you’re not afraid of the extra fat and cholesterol, and if you happen to have egg yolks left over from, say, making Pavlova, you might want to experiment with adding extra yolks to your flan.

 

 
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