What’s the difference between crème caramel and flan? Apparently nothing, when you’re talking about the dessert baked with a golden caramel sauce that tops a creamy, light yellow custard base when it’s turned upside down and popped out of its ramekin. But outside of the U.S. and most Spanish-speaking countries, flan has come to mean a dish with a pastry or sponge base and a sweet or savory filling, such as a quiche or custard tart. So we will call the dessert in this post crème caramel to avoid confusion.
I had it once, probably in Spain—at least I remember it was in a place where it was called flan. I found the liquid caramel bitter (probably overcooked) and the custard bland. But to be fair, I’m not much of a custard fan. Give me a dessert that’s chewy or crunchy or just plain chocolatey, and I’m all over it. But custard just seems rather blah in comparison.
But this is our technical challenge for the week, and I have pledged to tackle every challenge set before the bakers in the Great White Tent, so I will do my best to create the best crème caramel I possibly can (and who knows, maybe I’ll even like it)!
This recipe seemed pretty straightforward: Make a caramel; pour it in the ramekins. Make the custard; pour it over the caramel. Bake, cool and turn out. But there were some tricky parts that I was a little unsure of. First of all, that caramel…
Caramel and I don’t always get along so well, as seen in my last attempt at making it for my tarte tatin. So I was determined to get it right this time. Besides, I was following Mary Berry’s recipe, so what could go wrong?
To be doubly certain I didn’t make any missteps, I watched Mary make this recipe herself on The Great British Baking Show Masterclass (On Netflix, season 5, episode 1). I also found this cool video of Mary making crème caramel on TV, circa 1975.
Starting with the caramel, I stirred the sugar and the water together until it was dissolved. Not wanting it to burn (and ergo become bitter), I kept the heat low. When the sugar was mostly dissolved, I stopped stirring, but when I saw crystals forming on the side of the pan, I took a silicone pastry brush, dipped it in water and brushed the crystals away from the surface of the sugar syrup, like Danny did in this episode when making caramel for her crème caramels. I watched my syrup like a hawk and gradually turned the heat up. When it was boiling steadily, I gently swirled the hot syrup by moving the pan slightly. Finally, the syrup began to turn golden yellow.
Afraid that it would keep cooking even after I took it off the heat, I dunked the pan in a bowl of cold water. Unfortunately, that cooled it down too quickly, so when I poured it into the ramekins, it hardened right away and didn’t spread over the entire bottom of the dish like it was supposed to. Hoping to fix the problem, I stuck the ramekins in my preheated oven to see if the heat would soften the caramel again. I left them there while I made the custard.
I heated the milk on the stove while whisking the eggs, vanilla and sugar together. When the milk was hot (“When I put my finger in and I can’t keep it in, that is the temperature,” Mary explains, both on the Masterclass and in the 1975 BBC clip.) I poured it into the egg mixture and whisked it some more until smooth.
Taking the ramekins out of the oven, I noticed that my caramel had softened a little, but still hadn’t spread over the bottom of the ramekins, so I could only hope that it would melt while the custard was baking. I sprayed the inside of the ramekins with vegetable oil spray (Mary says not to butter them until after the caramel has hardened.) and then poured the custard mixture over the caramel.
Crème caramel needs to bake in a bain-marie, which is basically a pan of water in which the ramekins sit while baking in the oven. It regulates the temperature and protects the delicate custard from the direct heat of the oven, much like using a double boiler on the stove to keep chocolate from getting too hot while it’s melting. In fact (having just looked it up after writing that last sentence), a double boiler is a type of bain-marie; it’s just used on the stove instead of in the oven. (For those of you who are wordies, like me, and interested in word origins, bain-marieis named after its supposed inventor, a woman who lived in the first or second century A.D., known as Mary the Jewess or Mary the Prophetess, who was one of the first known alchemists and is credited with inventing other types of chemical apparatus as well. Read more about her here.)
To create the bain-marie, I simply placed the ramekins inside a 9×13-inch pan and filled it halfway with boiling water, being careful not to get any water inside the ramekins. I then carefully put the pan in the hot oven and baked the custard for about 30 minutes, until set but still slightly wobbly. (“There’s definitely a wobble there, Mary,” Paul says in the Masterclass episode.)
After letting them cool on a baking rack, I put my custards in the fridge. Mary’s recipe says to leave them in overnight to let the custard absorb the caramel flavor. When you are ready to serve them (and not before!), run a knife around the edge to loosen the custard from the ramekin, place a bowl or rimmed dish on top of the ramekin, grasp with both hands and turn over, giving it a bit of a shake to get the caramel to plop out of the ramekin onto the dish. You should hear a satisfying sploosh when it happens.
When the crème caramel is out of the ramekin and on the dish, it should be a nice pale yellow with a golden amber-colored sauce covering the top and spilling down the sides of the custard. Unfortunately, my caramel hadn’t been cooked long enough, so it wasn’t a nice golden color, but just a slightly darker yellow than the custard itself. I’m not the only one who had that problem, however. Both John and Ryan dealt with the same issue in this episode of GBBS.
Overall, I would say the custard was well-baked, smooth and creamy, with a definite wobble. So it was only my caramel that downgraded it from a five-star rating (or in this case, a five-cake rating).
Here’s a link to Mary’s recipe or you can follow my Americanized adaptation below.
Mary Berry’s Classic Crème Caramel
Adapted for American bakers
For the caramel:
- 6 T. water
For the custard:
- 2 c. whole milk
- 4 eggs
- 1 t. vanilla
- 2½ T. caster (superfine) sugar
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Place six 6-8 ounce ramekins in a 9×13-inch pan. Warm the ramekins in the oven so they are warm when the caramel is poured in.
- To make the caramel, pour the sugar and six tablespoons of water into a clean, stainless steel pan. Over low heat, stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar dissolves. When there are no sugar granules left, stop stirring and boil until the sugar turns a dark copper color.
- Immediately remove from heat to ensure the caramel does not burn. Quickly pour the caramel into the warmed ramekins, trying to divide it evenly. Set aside to cool and become hard. (Do not put in the fridge because the sugar will absorb moisture and go soft and tacky). Once hardened, butter (or spray with vegetable oil spray) the sides of the ramekins above the level of the caramel.
- To make the custard, pour the milk into a saucepan, and gently heat over low heat. While the milk is heating, whisk the eggs, vanilla extract and caster sugar together in a bowl until well mixed.
- When the milk is hot enough that you can just dip your finger in for a moment, remove from heat. Pour the milk onto the egg mixture in the bowl and whisk together until smooth. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a heat-proof pitcher or bowl with a pour spout. Then pour mixture into the prepared ramekins, which are still sitting in the 9×13 pan.
- Fill the pan halfway with boiling water, being careful not to spill any water into the custard-filled ramekins. Cook in the preheated oven for 20-30 minutes or until the custard has mostly set but is still slightly wobbly in the center. Do not overcook—make sure no bubbles are appearing around the edges of the custard.
- When set, take the pan out of the oven, carefully remove the ramekins from the pan with a hot pad or tongs, and set them on a cooling rack. When cool, put them in the fridge overnight so the caramel flavor is absorbed into the custard.
- To serve, loosen the sides of the custard by tipping the ramekin slightly and running a small knife around the edges. Place a serving dish on top of the ramekin and turn upside down, giving it a good shake until you hear a plop when the custard falls out of the ramekin. Remove ramekin to reveal golden caramel sauce atop a light yellow, creamy custard. Serve with fruit or pouring cream.