Flan is one of those deceptive desserts. It's deceptive because it looks so much harder and so much more complicated than it actually is. Flan, and custards in general, can be scary. Flan is deceptively easy.
I was introduced to flan a couple years ago by a colleague whose wife makes it for him and he brings to school events. He said it takes forever to make because of the caramel syrup, but its worth it. It is. His wife's flan is amazing and I've yet to 100% duplicate it. All I know about her version is she cooks the sugar over extremely low heat and stirs for a very long time. I tried doing it this way and wasted about two bags of caster sugar.
There's a surprising amount of versatility with flan, many of the standard ingredients can be substituted or changed. Coconut milk, almond extract, etc. can be used in place of other ingredients. Run out of vanilla extract? Use DiSaronno. Cream cheese isn't a necessity. The amount of eggs you use can be increased or decreased to your preferences (but I really think 3 is the minimum number). There are so many things you can do!
I like a thicker flan and sadly do not yet have an adequate plate/platter for serving flan from a pie dish. There's really no right or wrong pan to use. My colleague tends to bring the wife his flan makes in disposable tin pans. I use this recipe for 8x8 or 9x9 dishes. Increase the sugar and water for the caramel syrup if you want to use a 9x13.
Step 1: Ingredients
3-5 Eggs (depends on how eggy you like your flan)
1 cup Caster Sugar (really, really fine sugar. I get it for $3.99 at Whole Foods. Regular cane sugar works too)
1/4 cup water
Lemon (just a couple drops)
4-8oz cream cheese (to your preference)
1 can condensed milk
1 can evaporated milk
1-2 tsp vanilla extract
***I'm using 3 eggs as I feel the addition of cream cheese really enhances the flavor and texture of the flan.
Step 2: Do This First!
This step might seem like something you can easily do while the sugar is cooking, but it's not worth the stress of risking burned caramel. Do your prep first and the rest of the flan making process will be so much easier.
Preheat your oven to 350 and set up your flan dishes. I'm using a glass loaf dish and two smaller pyrex dishes because I wanted a couple more portable flans. The dishes are going to sit in a 9x13 dish so I can keep the glass warm with hot water and will later turn into a water bath while baking.
The 9x13 dish with the smaller dishes inside will sit on a cookie sheet for easier transporting to and from the oven.
Step 3: The Caramel Syrup
In a medium sized pan (when working with melted sugar, bigger is better) add 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water (and lemon drops). Stir to combine over medium heat and then stop stirring. Keep your eye on the sugar for the next 5-8 minutes as it will quickly turn to caramel syrup before your eyes and if you let the sugar brown too long, it'll become bitter and burn.
Remove caramel from heat and pour into your flan dishes. Quickly swirl the caramel around your dish to coat it. Once your dish is coated and the sugar has hardened, set aside.
This step is made easier with an extra set of hands, but it is completely doable with one.
Step 4: Caramel Syrup: Easier Alt. Method
In a large, and I mean large, microwave-friendly glass bowl or measuring up (like 4-8 cup) add your 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water and stir. Set the microwave to 4 minutes and microwave in increments of 30 seconds until the sugar syrup is the right color of caramel.
This is an almost foolproof method. I no longer have a microwave so I couldn't use this method today. But it works like a charm. Just don't let the caramel get too brown. You want a nice golden color.
Step 5: The Custard
Add the evaporated milk, condensed milk, eggs, vanilla extract, and cream cheese to a bowl or blender (I used my Vitamix) and blend for 30 seconds. Blending negates the need to strain the custard. It works great and saves your arm some trouble.
By this time the caramel should be set. Pour the custard into your dishes.
Step 6: Baking
Add hot water to the 9x13 dish to create a water bath for your flan. The water bath will give you more even cooking. Covering the flan with foil will also help with cooking.
Put your dish on the center rack and let bake for 30-40 minutes, and then check every 10 minutes until the flan has a gentle jello-like movement in the center and the sides are set. When you remove the custard from the oven they will become firmer as they cool.
I've made several flans over the past 2 year and almost every one of them has been over-cooked because I was too afraid of taking the flan from the oven when I should have. The flan movement will look too liquidy, you'll think it's underdone, but it really will be okay. As mentioned above, custards become firmer as they cool.
The video above shows flan after 50 minutes of cooking. 35 minutes with tin foil on top, the last 15 without. After I made the clip, I removed the flan from the oven.
Step 7: Serve!
Once the custards have cooled a bit, move them to the fridge to continue cooling for 4-24 hours. Before serving, run a knife along the edge of your flan dish and then place a plate/serving dish on top and flip over. Remove the flan dish and voila, a very sophisticated and delicious dessert (or breakfast).
The flan will stay good in the refrigerator (tightly covered) for a few days. I made the ones in the photos on Sunday, ate the bigger and then on Wednesday I opened one of the smaller dishes and finished it off this morning (Thursday) for breakfast.