We’ve always believed that baking should be fun, with the best recipes being both entertaining to prepare and delicious to eat.
A lovely caramel flan, among the simplest of desserts, hits the mark because of its “big reveal” before serving. The dish of baked egg custard looks benign, even boring, until you place a plate over it, turn it head over heels and feel the gentle plomp as the dessert releases.
But that’s not even the best part. Lifting the baking dish releases the secret of burnished caramel syrup that pools around the custard. The act transforms what appeared to be a rather sensible dessert into a silken, sensuous finish to any meal — something that might suit the occasion, given the Valentine’s weekend.
Bonus fun: Flan improves in flavor when chilled overnight (even two nights), making it an ideal make-ahead dessert.
For such a simple dessert, there are many versions, with various claims of authenticity. With its roots in Latin American culture, where dulce de leche (or caramelized milk), is favored, we veered toward recipes calling for a can of sweetened condensed milk.
For the best caramel results, we adopted the tip of using some light corn syrup to keep sugar crystals from forming as the water and sugar mixture melts into a caramel. A note: This isn’t the high-fructose corn syrup of health concerns. The clear corn syrup on store shelves (Karo is the major brand) is made with a different process.
Making caramel isn’t difficult, but it requires your complete attention because it turns from clear to amber to the color of maple syrup more quickly than you might think. If the phone rings now, let it roll over to voice mail.
Finally, we fiddled with the oven temperature after tracking down the explanations for the tiny bubbles that sometimes appear in a flan, marring its otherwise creamy appearance. Turns out the bubbles are a sign of a custard cooked too quickly, so we reduced the oven temperature and used hot water instead of boiling water for the water bath in which the custard cups bake.
Ah, the water bath. Egg custards must bake evenly, ensuring that the center cooks without the perimeter turning into a rubbery ring. A few inches of warm water provides a moderating insulation. Laying a paper towel in the pan keeps the dishes from sliding into each other.
Garnished with a bit of fresh fruit, flan is both comfort food and elegant dessert. Bonus for some: It’s also gluten-free.
And if you have an extra serving — our recipe makes six — you’ll find that flan raises the bar on having an egg for breakfast.