Flan is a wonderfully rich and sweet Mexican dessert made from custard, often topped with a caramel sauce. The dessert is versatile and welcomes all sorts of experimentation with everything from spices to binders. For a lesson on a classic old-fashioned flan, Francis Lam visited Fany Gerson. Gerson is the chef owner of La Newyorkina and has written three books about Mexican sweets including My Sweet Mexico and her latest, Mexican Ice Cream. Join Fany and Francis for a wonderful discussion and then try your hand at her recipe for Old-Fashioned Flan.

Francis Lam:   Hola, Fany. Thank you so much for having us into your kitchen.

Fany Gerson:  Thank you for being here; I’m very excited. I love talking about sweets, particularly Mexican sweets.

FL:   You’re going to show us how to make flan? First, can you tell us about it?

FG:  Of course. Flan is a type of custard. Custard is very versatile and much simpler than it often seems. Let’s head to the kitchen. It’s a bit noisy; there’s paleta making and lots of stuff going on.

[Francis and Fany enter the kitchen area.]

FL: We’re in your kitchen, by your stove. You have a very simple set up: salt, sugar, vanilla, eggs, egg yolks, and a little bit of Mexican cinnamon.

FG:  I love Mexican cinnamon in this recipe. We also have some milk with a little bit of heavy cream that has been steeping in the back. This is an old-fashioned flan. There are many different versions, but this is my sister’s favorite recipe. There are people that use cinnamon, some people use vanilla bean. Some use lemon zest, or lime actually, because we don’t use a lot of lemon in Mexico – or a combination. You can make this flan to suit your particular taste. I happen to love cinnamon; it’s very nostalgic. To me, the fact that it’s an old-fashioned flan means it has to have cinnamon.

Fany Gerson (with her new book Mexican Ice Cream) and Francis Lam outside of La Newyorkina. Photo: Shay Paresh

FL: We forgot to mention the first step which you’ve already done and set up for us. You made a simple caramel; it was a nice amber color. You poured it into the pan you’re going to cook the flan in, right?

FG: Correct. You do this ahead of time because you want it to be cold. The one we’re working with is already chilled. We have the milk and the cream that were brought up to a simmer with the cinnamon; it’s been steeping for about 15 minutes to extract that flavor. The next thing we’re going to do, is we’re going to strain it.

FL: You’re putting it through a fine mesh strainer, just to catch the bits of cinnamon?

FG: Yep, you want to be sure the mixture is still warm. Next, you’re going to mix the sugar with the milk. As long as the sugar dissolves, you’re fine; you can continue making the flan off the stove. If it hasn’t dissolved, then you just put it back, just for a couple minutes, and keep stirring until it’s dissolved.

Again, you’re going to find so many recipes. Some are milk, some are half-and-half, some are a mixture. All of those little things affect the mouthfeel. But, essentially, the technique is the same. You should take a recipe, get the technique down, and have the confidence to play around depending on what the texture you want.

Now we’re going to make a mixture of eggs and yolks. You need the extra yolks to bind it a little better, but you don’t want to use just yolks because it would be really eggy and too rich. Mix the eggs lightly; you don’t want to whip them too much. Then you’re going to add a pinch of salt and just a little splash of the vanilla. Everything’s going to get mixed.

Now, take your hot milk with sugar in it – that’s been infused with the cinnamon – and put just part of it into your eggs at first. This is what we call tempering. The reason why you do this and you don’t pour the eggs directly into the hot liquid is because you’ll make sweet scrambled eggs. That won’t be good.

Fany Gerson and Francis Lam recording The Splendid Table segment at La Newyorkina with Managing Producer Sally Swift and audio operator Juan Marcos Percy. Photo: Shay Paresh

FL: You’ve added a little bit of warm milk to the eggs and whisked it in. You’re gently bringing up the temperature of the eggs with the warm milk, but not so much that you cook it.

FG:  Whisk the eggs. Again, you don’t want to add a lot of air to it; you’re not trying to whip the eggs. But, now that you have a little bit of the milk in it, you can be a little bit more aggressive with the whisking. You want to make sure they’re well incorporated.

We’re going to pour the flan mixture into the pan that has the caramel that’s been cooled down. I like to use a strainer strain again, just in case, because sometimes when you break the eggs they have a little bit of shell. You pour it directly on top of the caramel.

FL: It’s streaming in so beautifully.

FG: It’s almost like you can taste it.

FL: You can taste it in your mind as you watch it. It’s not super thick, but a rich, viscous liquid is going to pour into it. You just know it’s going to be smooth and beautiful. The strainer also catches any bit of the egg white that you haven’t whisked in. Now you’re ready to go in the oven, or rather into the water bath?

FG: Yes. We’re going to cover it with aluminum foil. You don’t want to cover it too tight, because that’s going to create steam. You can actually puncture a couple of holes in the foil. Then you put it in a water bath. You want to take a baking pan that is bigger but at least just as tall, if not taller, than your flan mold. Put the flan mold inside a pan, and put the pan in the oven. Then I like to pour the water directly into the larger pan to surround the flan.

FL: Do you use boiling water?

FG: I use tap water that’s very hot. You don’t need to boil it. Very simple.

FL: And that protects the flan as it bakes, so the outside edge of the flan doesn’t bake too fast?

FG: Exactly. With a custard, you want things to cook slowly.

FL: Just babying it the whole time.

FG:  Just babying it the whole time. It helps to know your oven. I always say that when it comes to flan, the same recipe can take 15 minutes, or an hour and 15 minutes. A lot of it depends on what exact temperature it was before going into the oven. What you’re looking for is that when you take it out and shake it, it’s going to jiggle a little bit in the center, but the edges are set. Does that make sense?

FL: Yeah.

FG: The hardest part is that once you take it out of the oven, you have to refrigerate it to cool it; you have to wait to eat it. But, you know, patience has its rewards. I’m going to pop this one in the oven, but I made one ahead of time, so we don’t have to wait until tomorrow.

Recipe for Old-Fashioned Flan Photos: Manuel Molina

FL: So, here it is. I did crack a little around the edge, not a big deal. This is beautiful because – and I don’t know why this happens – it seems like the caramel in the pan mixes with the base as it bakes. So that when you unmold it, it has its own sauce. The caramel bakes directly onto it, but some of it runs off, and it’s this beautiful, loose, sort of syrupy sauce.

FG: It’s amazing.

FL: Let’s go in for a bite. Oh, man. It’s so velvety, smooth and beautiful. It’s delicious. I’m literally drooling right now, I can’t talk. Thank you so much for showing me how to make this.

FG: Thank you for stopping by. Come back soon!

Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.