Saturday, May 17, 2008

Flan: Crème Caramel: Caramel Custard

A number of places I've visited claim as their own baked custard with an upside-down caramelized sugar topping. The dish, common in the tropics, is called variously flan, crème caramel, and caramel custard. The French, Spanish, Latin Americans, and even Indians, say it's their specialty. It's surprisingly simple, needing only to be made in advance and chilled before serving.

The ingredients are readily available throughout the world -- canned sweetened condensed milk (which keeps without refrigeration), fresh eggs, sugar, and vanilla. If there is an oven available the dessert is easy to make. The version presented here is flavored with both vanilla and rum or coffee and is accompanied by sliced or diced tropical fruits. The traditional simple version does not include flavorings other than vanilla, and it's simply served cold inverted on the dish so the caramel is the topping.

Caramel is sugar heated until it turns golden brown, a sort of controlled burn. Sweetened condensed milk is available at supermarkets, but is by far cheapest at Asian or Latino groceries. Be sure to get the full cream variety, not the skim milk version, and especially not the "filled" milk variety with skim milk and vegetable oil in place of cream. If the custard is to be a large single one, the full complement of eggs is needed so it holds together. Slightly less egg is needed for small, individual custards. The recipe will make dessert for six people.

Crème Caramel (Caramel Custard/Flan) Tim

Custard
1/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 (14-ounce) can of sweetened condensed whole milk
2 cans water (minus 2 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons amber or dark rum (or strong freshly made coffee)

Fruit Salad
1 cup, total, of a mixture of diced tropical fruits, such as mango, pineapple, orange, kiwi fruit, etc, or use strawberries, raspberries and/or blueberries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon amber or dark rum

Set oven for 340 degrees. Have ready a nine-inch glass or ceramic pie dish or low-sided casserole plus a larger pan into which the dish will fit to make a hot-water bath (bain marie) for the baking. Have a kettle of simmering water ready for the water bath.

Two options for caramelizing: Heat the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan until melted and caramelizing to a dark tea color. Pour the mixture as evenly as you can over the bottom of the baking dish and tip the dish to distribute it around. (The dish can be warmed in a microwave to re-melt the hardened caramel so you can spread it more evenly, if desired.) The other option that sometimes works and is easier is to place the sugar evenly in the glass or ceramic dish and microwave it until it caramelizes. With either method, let the caramelized sugar cool before adding the custard mixture.

In a large bowl lightly beat the eggs with a whisk or large fork. Add the condensed milk, scraping the can out with a spatula. Mix the milk into the eggs. Add two cans worth of water, measuring out and discarding a total of 2 tablespoons of the water. Mix the water into the egg-milk mixture. Add and mix in the salt, vanilla and rum (or coffee).

Place the prepared custard dish in the larger pan, and pour the custard mixture through a strainer into the dish. Place the two pans on a middle or lower shelf in the oven and pour the simmering water into the outer pan to come up as much as half way on the custard dish. Bake for about 1-1/4 hours, or until the top seems set when gently wiggled and a knife point stuck into the custard half way from the edge to the center comes out clean without clinging milk. Remove the custard and its water bath from the oven and allow the custard to cool completely. Remove the custard dish from the water bath and cover the dish with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cold. The custard will keep for several days, and is better after chilling for a few hours to a day. To serve, run a sharp knife around the edge of the custard to free it from the dish. Place a serving platter upside down over the custard dish, then turn the whole thing over so the custard drops onto the platter, and the caramel sauce covers and surrounds it.

For the fruit salad, peel and dice (1/4-1/2 inch) the fruits selected. Mix in the sugar and rum and let marinate at least 10 minutes. When serving the custard, first spoon the caramel sauce back over the top, then put a spoonful of fruit onto the center of the custard and distribute the remainder of the fruit around the custard.

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