When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher introduced me to flan—actually, a recipe for it, not the actual experience. She knew I loved to make desserts.
The recipe called for rennet and evaporated milk. Rennet is the lining membrane of a stomach or one of its compartments of a young ruminant (think calf). There are enzymes contained therein that curdle milk and eventually produce cheese. By the time I incidentally found a package of rennet on a dusty shelf above the old cooler in a small-town grocery store near where I lived (a bigger small town), I had lost interest in using it, having found a recipe that called for eggs and evaporated milk.
Also the rennet was expensive, considering I only needed a very small amount of the package; and I was a teenager with a limited income.
Evaporated milk is listed in many Spanish or Mexican recipes for flan, without the rennet. I think I used it once. The recipe for flan I use most often is from an old cookbook I had many years ago. It is supposedly French, and uses whole milk.
This time I tried Sara Moulton’s Three Citrus Flan, sans the citrus and with a little change-up. I love citrus flans, but this was a use-it-up leftovers flan and I found only 1/2 a pruney looking lime as a citrus contribution.
I had leftover sweetened condensed milk from a recipe I tried earlier in the week and almost a pint of half-and-half that had been in the fridge for a week. They both needed to be used up. Dairy items are easily passed over until it’s too late. (I once unknowingly offered spoiled cream for coffee to a friend of my daughter’s—it was our first meeting. Fortunately she said something, instead of just not drinking her coffee; or, worse yet, drinking her coffee in pucker-faced silence!)
The sweetened condensed milk came to 1/2 cup; the half-and-half filled the 2-cup measure an additional cup and 2/3, so I rounded it out with whole milk to make up the difference, using Sara’s proportion of milk as a guideline.
The flan turned out nice and creamy, and the caramel was perfect. I think I’m going to have to try sweetened condensed milk again, combining it with whole milk. It seemed to give a silkier texture.
I had to eat a portion as soon as it was cool enough (room temperature). I held strong on not eating any more after it had been chilled—I could easily eat all of the flan in a couple of hours. It’s been done.
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
2 1/4 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly butter 8 ramekins; or a 6-cup heat-proof baking dish (I’ve used a 9-inch pie plate, and a stoneware soufflé dish).
2. Caramelize sugar: Place 3/4 cup of the sugar into a heavy skillet or wide pan (non-stick is best), add 1 tablespoon of water and heat over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Let sugar cook, without stirring, until starts to bubble; cover and let cook for two minutes. This causes enough steam to melt any grains on the sides of the pan that can cause crystallization of the caramel. Remove the lid and continue to cook for 3 minutes or until a rich golden brown. Do not stir; you can swirl the pan if necessary. Divide equally between the ramekins, or pour into the larger dish if using, swirling to cover the bottom. Caramel is very hot and will heat the dish quickly; have hot pads or oven mitts handy.
3. Whisk the remaining 3/4 cup sugar with the eggs in a large bowl. Beat in the milk, vanilla, and salt. Pour custard into the prepared ramekins. Place into a roasting pan, or other pan, lined with a kitchen towel. Put the pan on the oven rack and pour very hot water around the custard cups to halfway up the sides of the cups.
4. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until center jiggles a bit but is not liquid (a knife blade should come out clean when inserted halfway to the center). Remove the cups from the roasting pan and let cool on racks. Chill 3 hours.
5. To unmold: run a thin knife blade around the edge of the custard, invert onto a plate, allowing syrup to run over it.
Note: Often there is a thin sheet of hard caramel left on the very bottom of the ramekins after turning the custards out. I sometimes break it up and use the shards to decorate the custard before serving. You can heat it briefly in the microwave for a couple of seconds to warm it up a little; tap with the edge of a spoon to break and scoop it out.