Flan, much like its French cousin creme caramel, consists of a custard baked over a layer of caramelized sugar. Once set and chilled, the custard is loosened from the baking dish, and overturned on a plate, saucy caramel spilling out and covering the baked custard. It’s really quite spectacular.
I began steaming flan at Chicago’s Blackbird in an attempt to expedite the long process of baking custard in an oven that was often in use for other things. What I stumbled on was one of the most tender, lovely custards I’d ever met, and it elevated the texture of flan, a dessert often rubbery and dense, to new heights. This flan includes evaporated milk, and an extra layer of flavor can be added by boiling the cans of milk for two hours before using it, a process that browns the milk protein until it tastes like dulce de leche.
To make the custard
- 100 g sugar
- 1 vanilla beans
- 300 g evaporated milk caramelized by boiling in the can for 2 hours
- 300 g heavy cream
- 150 g egg yolks
- Place sugar in a small bowl and split the vanilla bean in half, scraping the seeds from the vanilla bean into the sugar. Reserve the vanilla pod for another use. Use your fingers to rub the seeds and the sugar together, breaking up the vanilla seeds until they are evenly dispersed in the sugar.
- Add the caramelized evaporated milk, cream, and egg yolks to the bowl and whisk until evenly combined, adding as little air as possible.
- Strain the custard through a fine mesh strainer and let it rest for 30 minutes, allowing any foamy air bubbles to rise to the top and be spooned off. Set the custard aside while you prepare the dishes for the flan.
To steam the flan
- 100 g sugar
- 75 g water
- 4 6-ounce ovenproof dishes, preferably 4-5 inches across
- Prepare a steamer. In my home I do this with with a bamboo steamer I bought in Chinatown, the same kind used for dim sum. I also have a common metal basket steamer with petals that open and close. I can insert this in the bottom of a large pot, but you must make sure you have a pot large enough that the steamer opens completely, giving a flat surface for the custard cups to sit on. In the professional kitchen we use two half hotel pans, a 6-inch-deep pan with a 2-inch-deep perforated pan nested inside it.
- Set the small ovenproof dishes near the stove to collect the caramel the moment it’s made.
- Place the sugar and water in a small pot, place the pot over medium heat, stirring very gently, just until the sugar is moist, until the syrup starts to boil. Wash any stray sugar crystals that form on the sides of the pot with a moist brush, and continue to cook until the sugar reaches a golden caramel. Check the color of your caramel by dipping a piece of white paper in the caramel, it will always look darker in the pot than it really is. Cook until the color is a tawny golden brown, like the color of a newborn fawn.
- Working quickly, Remove from heat and divide the caramel between the four custard cups. Swirl the hot caramel around the cups if necessary, to ensure it coats the bottom evenly. Let the caramel cool completely in the cups, then divide the prepared custard between the four cups; you should have about 200 g in each cup. Cover each cup individually with with foil.
- Bring the water in the steamer to a boil, then add the covered custard cups. Steam for 12-15 minutes, until they jiggle when tapped. To test a flan, carefully lift it from the steamer and peek under the foil, tapping the cup to judge its jiggliness. If the surface of the flan ripples, return the foil and steam for another 5 minutes. If it jiggles like Jell-o, congrats! Your flans are steamed. Get them out of the steamer and chill them in the refrigerator for at least six hours, preferably overnight. If the flans are completely set and a little bubbly, they have been overcooked. Chill them and eat them anyways, the flavor will still be delicious. Better yet, immediately blend the hot over-steamed flans into a custard sauce to be spooned over desserts in the fashion of creme Anglaise, and pretend you are a budding culinary genius who just invented flan-glaise. On purpose.
- When your steamed flans have set completely, run a knife around the edges, loosening the custard from the cups, and carefully invert it onto the center of a plate or bowl. Prepare to enjoy one of the best flans you’ve ever had.