I love custards of any type and in my opinion, a creme caramel (0r flan) beats a creme brulee any day. There is something about the caramel that the burnt sugar crust of creme brulee does not do for my taste buds. Besides, the burnt sugar crust on a creme brulee cannot be made too much in advance. I have found out the hard way that it simply melts if stored for more than an hour or so.
I have tried making creme caramel many ways and have finally settle on an adaptation of Julia Child’s recipe with just a few changes. After trying heavy cream, whole milk and combinations, I have settled on half and half as creating a custard of ideal richness. Julia Child’s recipe uses whole milk, which also works very nicely. I also add a pinch of salt, without which most desserts are incomplete. Finally, I use a slightly different method of making the caramel because I find that the organic cane sugar does better with this method (both the typical and this method are described below).
The custard alone makes a very elegant dessert and is dead easy to make. I often make it the night before if I am expecting company on a weekday.
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1, Add sugar and water to a heavy stainless steel saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved.
2. When it starts to brown, swirl the saucepan around but do not stir. You can use a wet pastry brush to coax the sugar stuck on the sides of the pan into the liquid. When the caramel is amber colored (think maple syrup), remove from heat.
3. Working quickly, pour directly into molds; swirl each mold to coat evenly with the caramel. Don’t worry if the caramel is not evenly spread, it will solidify instantly in your mold and will liquify during the baking process. This will spread it nicely and evenly. The caramel will stay liquified until you flip the flan/custard over, just before serving.
If you are using organic cane sugar, this method works better, at least in my hands.
Add the sugar and about 2 tbs. water and mix well to create a thick slurry (see images above). Set the slurry on low heat and stir on and off. The liquid will dry off and the caramel will look like it went south. But then, magic happens, the sugar begins to caramelize and release moisture to form a perfect amber colored caramel. Its a slower process, but more reliable. Once you have made the caramel, pour into molds as in Method 1.
Remember not to walk away while the caramel is on the stove: it can go from perfectly browned to burnt in no time at all.
The caramel is really hot and can singe the heck out of your fingers.
2 1/2 cups half and half or whole milk (whole is better, but 2% also works)
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla or 1/2 a vanilla bean
Generous pinch of salt
1) Pour the half and half into a heavy duty sauce pan. Using the tip of a knife, scrape the vanilla seeds from the vanilla bean and add both the seeds and the bean to the half and half. On medium heat, scald the half and half, till it is close to boiling, but does not boil over. Remove the vanilla bean.
2) In a separate bowl, whisk the sugar into the eggs and egg yolks in a bowl until well mixed, light, and foamy. Continue whisking while pouring in the hot half and half. This process, called tempering, prevents your eggs from coagulating. The original recipe calls for straining the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve into the caramel-lined molds (I never do this, but you should if some of your eggs have cooked/coagulated).
3) To bake the molds, set them in a 13×9″ pan and pour enough boiling water around them to come halfway up the sides ( I just use hot tap water, it adds a few min to the baking time).
4) Place in the bottom third of an oven preheated to 350F. After five minutes, turn down the heat to 325F. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the center is firm but slightly wobbly. Do not overcook, it will make the custard tough.
5) To unmold, simply run a knife along the edges of the mold. Place a serving dish upside down over the mold and quickly flip the custard over so that the caramel is on top. My family has an ongoing debate about whether a custard is best eaten hot or cold. I come down in the middle, if you make the caramel, I prefer it cold, if not, I prefer the plain custard hot.
6) The original recipe says that it serves 4-6 people. But I get 7 servings out of it. This is the maximum number of ramekins that I can fit into a 13×9″ water bath. If I had a larger oven which accommodated a larger pan, I could even get 8 serving out of this recipe.