Flan is a custard-like dessert with roots burrowed deep across all the Americas. Making flan has to be an art form, since the smooth texture of the custard-like dessert and delicate flavor of the caramel syrup come together to create spoonfuls of pure delight. However, most modern recipes call for cans of evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk, which makes flan a highly processed delicacy, which to me is somewhat of an oxymoron. For my flan recipe, I brought my eye for research and my shovel to dig down to those ancient roots.
When I set out to create a recipe for flan, I wanted to use less white sugar and more pure ingredients without increasing the level of difficulty required to make it. I decided that instead of sweetened condensed milk, I would use whole fat coconut milk, as is often done in the Caribbean. I also swapped coconut palm sugar for white sugar in the flan, and melted a mixture of turbinado sugar and piloncillo in order to create a caramel sauce with a deeper, less cloying flavor. I wanted my flan to taste like a pumpkin custard with infused caramel flavor that I could never compare to a pumpkin pie.
I did use plain canned pumpkin, but if you have the time to cook and mash real pumpkin, it would certainly be a fine thing to do. What I wouldn’t suggest is to use canned pumpkin pie mix. I like the idea of measuring my own spices, and I knew I didn’t want my flan to come out tasting just like pumpkin pie.
For some reason, I was nervous about making the caramel syrup. I’ve had cooks tell me that the key to not burning the sauce is to keep stirring. However, I’ve also read recipes which suggested that it doesn’t need to be touched by a spoon, but instead simply brought to a boil. I decided to stir and stir. While flan may be topped with a smokey sweet cateja quemada, it should never be topped with a caramel sauce in which the sugar was accidentally heated to the point of burning because the bitter charred taste will overpower the delicate flavor of the flan.
The caramel sauce I made for this recipe is simply made from sugar and water, but there are much fancier methods that will render different products. Made with sugar caramelization in cow’s milk, the sauce is called dulce de leche. If goat’s milk is used, the result is called cateja. Usually made in large copper pots in Mexico, cateja comes in many shades and intricately diverse flavors. It is stored in glass jars, and used to spread on breads and drizzle on desserts.
Another decision that must be made with flan is what container to pour it in. Single serving ramekins work well, as do glass pie pans and bunds cake pans. For this flan, I used my mom’s bundt pan that hadn’t been in an oven for decades. To my delight, my flan slid out of the bundt cake pan covered in a light caramel sauce, and when cut, revealed a velvety texture that bore little resemblance to pumpkin pie. That’s just what I wanted.
1 15 1/2 ounce can solid packed pumpkin
1 can whole fat coconut milk
2 egg yolks
3/4 cup to 1 1/2 cups coconut palm sugar (depending on how sweet you want the flan)
2 tsp vanilla
1 splash almond extract (optional)
3 tbsp. pumpkin pie spice (a mixture of the ground forms of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves)
1 tsp. ginger
water for Baño de Maria
Caramel Sauce Ingredients:
1/2 cup sugar
1 cone piloncillo
Pink Himalayan Sea Salt from grinder, to taste
1/4 cup water
Caramel Sauce Instructions:
1. In a copper or stainless steel skillet, melt the sugar over medium heat, stirring constantly until the liquid starts to bubble but before it comes to a full boil.
2. Turn the heat down to low and continue to stir until the sauce darkens and thickens. Do not stop stirring even if the phone rings or the baby cries because it only takes a second for the sugar to scorch. If it happens, the flavor will be ruined and you must start over. If you keep stirring and cook the sauce too long, it may begin to solidify. You can simply add more water and reheat it until it liquifies again. It will melt in the oven anyway, so a too solid sauce is nothing to fret over.
3. Be sure that the mold or molds you plan to use will fit into a larger glass pan filled 1/3 of the way up with water. This will be the Baño de Maria that will ensure the flan cooks evenly and doesn’t stick to the mold. Prepare the water bath and place it in a 350
4. Pour the caramel sauce in the bottom of the mold or molds you are going to use to cook the flan. Swish the sauce around to cover the bottom evenly and the first third of the sides of the mold(s) evenly.
5. Grind pink Himalayan sea salt over the caramel sauce in the bottom of each mold you are using.
1. In a large mixing bowl, place one can do solid packed pumpkin and 1 can of whole fat coconut milk. Add the vanilla and splash of almond extract. Add the sugar. Begin to mix together with an electric mixer (handheld – not stand) on medium low speed.
2. Add each of the four eggs one at a time and combine thoroughly using the mixer before adding the next egg on medium high speed.
3. Separate 2 yet yolks from the egg whites. Mix the two egg yolks into the flan batter on medium high speed.
4. Mix in the pumpkin pie spice last using the highest speed on the mixer. Continue mixing for 1-2 minute to fluff up the ingredients.
5. Pour the flan mixture into the mold(s).
6. Place the mold(s) carefully into the Bano de Maria that is waiting in the oven.
7. Cook flan for one and a half hours or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the flan comes out clean. If you are using small ramekins, cooking time may be considerably less.
8. Let flan cool for an hour before inverting it into a serving dish. Refrigerate for an hour more before serving if desired.
9. Serve with more salted caramel spooned over each slice, or with some whipped cream on the side, or both. Enjoy this seasonal dessert with those that you love!