I’m not a sweets person, but there are few things in life more satisfying than a good flan. I almost never order it in restaurants because it’s often far too sweet for my taste. There is an important balance between the sweetness of the custard and the subtle, bitter edge of the caramel poured over top that is difficult to achieve.
Like most things in Catalan cuisine, it is for me the simplicity of it that really draws me in. Eggs, sugar, milk, and time. It’s about all you need. Dessert doesn’t need to be complicated, but for some reason it often is. I’ve had a lot of terrible desserts in my time–undercooked molten lava cake, cheesecake doused in sticky strawberry syrup from a plastic bottle, a mountain of super sweet bread pudding that was so dense I could hardly cut through it with my spoon. Maybe the worst dessert I’ve ever eaten, though, was at a highly regarded restaurant–a false ice cream (a rubbery insipid sphere of lime and coconut and smoky air) meant I imagine to surprise and delight and which managed to do neither, a sad correlation between intention and reception.
When I want dessert, I want dessert, preferably made by someone’s grandmother. So when I made this at home I figured it would be the first of several attempts, a journey riddled with trials and errors, each step one that would bring me closer to iaia’s flan. Instead, in a rare moment of luck, I nailed it. It took only one bite to know.
I wanted to be transported to the cozy cave-like back room of a family-run restaurant in the Catalan countryside. Indeed, there I was, tiny spoon in hand, savoring one eggy creamy bite after another. Eyes closed, dreaming of my coming cortado.
You will be too. You’ll see.
You can make this flan in one large baking dish, which is how I made it the first time, or in individual ramekins. I’ve given you the recipe for using ramekins, because it makes a prettier serving and is easier to save if it doesn’t all get eaten, but a single baking dish provides a sense of drama when it’s presented at the table. Note that if you use a single baking dish you will have to increase your cooking time to 50-60 minutes.
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 strip lemon peel
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the caramel, Pour 1/2 cup sugar into a nonstick saucepan. Heat over medium, bringing to a boil. Swirl to ensure the sugar heats evenly, but avoid stirring. Let it cook until it’s a deep amber color, about 10 minutes. Be sure to watch it carefully as it begins to darken, from amber to deep amber, to prevent it from burning. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the caramel into the ramekins, dividing it evenly among them. Tilt each dish to ensure that the caramel covers the bottom evenly. Set them aside to cool. The caramel will harden as it cools, which is okay. It will become liquid again as it’s cooked.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees
Add the remaining three quarters cup sugar, milk, lemon peel, and salt into a small pot. Heat over medium heat until the sugar is entirely dissolved. Turn off and let sit.
Using a hand blender, combine eggs, egg yolk, and vanilla in a large bowl and blend until smooth.
Pour a few spoonfuls of the milk mixture over the eggs, then stir to incorporate. Repeat until about half of the milk mixture is in the eggs and then transfer the eggs into the milk.
Strain the entire mixture over a fine mesh strainer into a new bowl.
Divide the custard mixture evenly among the ramekins.
Set the ramekins into a 9 by 13 inch baking dish and fill the dish carefully with water, until the water covers just over half the height of the ramekins.
Bake for 25 to 35 minutes until the flan is set, but still jiggly in the middle. Remove the ramekins from the water and set out to cool for at least 30 minutes. Then refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight. The longer the flan is stored in the fridge, the more syrupy the sauce will become.
To unmold, run a butter knife around the edges of the custard. Place the serving plate over on top of the ramekin and flip. The custard should come out easily, and the caramel should be a liquid which you can pour easily over the top.