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Recipe: cheater flan

This was supposed to be my week of relaxation. By relaxation, I mean getting shit done on my todo novel (it is no longer a list). But Mr. Tooth isn’t having any of that and we went in for a root canal today. It’s not all Tooth’s fault because I hadn’t seen Leyla in months and then there are things going on tomorrow and tentative things going on Friday with tons of medical appointments sprinkled in between for good measure and then I land face first on the weekend wondering where the hell my week went?

my week went straight into a roiling mass of hell

I used to have a fear of making caramelized sugar. Then I mastered it – at sea level. Then I moved to nose-bleed Colorado and bricked about 4 batches of caramelized sugar before I learned that a little acid (cream of tartar or lemon juice) helps to reduce the cussing stabilize the sugar. Caramelized sugar is great for many things, but my favorite way to have it is in flan.

pour dangerous caramelized sugar and coat the ramekin

The flan recipe I have was snarfed from a professor in graduate school. It’s easy. It’s straightforward. When I began baking seriously, I realized it is a cheater recipe of sorts. But I still like it.

extract instead of bean

Typically, I make one giant flan. These days, the beauty of the single serving means easier storage in the refrigerator and easier distribution to friends and neighbors.

straining the mixture

My roasting pan serves double duty and does a great job as hot water bath for all manner of desserts. Did I mention that I picked up an organic turkey?

ready for the hot water bath (turkey not pictured)

When the flans are done, I let them cool for a few hours and then place them in the refrigerator for several more hours.


The release is always the maddening part for me as it sometimes comes out less than perfect. Jeremy asked why I don’t just serve it in the ramekin and I told him that was stupid. I unmolded three of the flans before I got a good one to shoot.

lovely, creamy, dreamy

Cheater Flan
[print recipe]

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 tsp cream of tartar (optional)
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
2 tsps vanilla
3 cups milk
3 eggs

Dissolve the sugar and cream of tartar in the water, stirring over low heat in a saucepan. Increase the heat to medium high. DO NOT STIR. Allow the mixture to boil until caramel color begins to appear – usually 5 minutes or so. When sugar is a deep caramel color, remove from heat and pour into a 9-inch round baking pan or quickly pour into 6 small ramekins and carefully swirl the caramel around to coat the sides. Set the pan(s) aside. Meanwhile whisk eggs in a large bowl. Then mix in vanilla and sweetened condensed milk. Stir in the milk. Strain custard into the pan or ramekins. Set the pan or ramekins in a water bath up to 1/2 or 3/4 of their height in an oven at 400°F. Bake the 9-inch for 50 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean. Bake the ramekins for about 35 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean. Cool the flan until room temperature (a couple of hours) and then refrigerate for 12 hours. Loosen the sides of the flan with a knife. Invert the pan or ramekin onto a plate and let the flan release.

36 nibbles at “cheater”

  1. Nate says:

    What’s the difference between a flan and a creme brulee?

  2. Rosa says:

    I’m glad you overcame your fear! The result is great! What delightful flans!



  3. Kitt says:

    Oh YUM. I’ve made flan from one of Rick Bayless’ books, and it’s surprisingly easy for such an elegant-looking dessert. But first I had to get past the misconception that all the caramelized sugar was supposed to come out of the ramekin (picture me gouging at it with a knife and cursing).

  4. Tony says:

    love your whisk :) you know what else helps with the sugar (don’t ask me how I know this… this might be one of those wives tales, but I never make a flan without doing this… neither does my mom for that matter).
    1) pour the sugar into the saucepan (making a tiny hill). 2) make a cross in the sugar (with the back of a wooden spoon, or a clean finger is what I usually use) and pour the water into the center 3) cook without stirring until desired amber color is reached. It never fails me.
    before typing this I tried to rationalize this method and here’s what I got:
    The cross creates a path for the sugar to dissolve into the water without physically mixing the solution by hand and dissolving it that way. The reason why the latter would not be good (I’m guessing) is because if enough sugar crystals happen to splatter onto the side of the saucepan in the very beginning, they could crystalize under the heat and mess everything up.

  5. Manggy says:

    Hey! I fail to see how this is cheating… We make flans with condensed milk here all the time! ;) These are some of my favorite things. I tried making it for the first time but I didn’t add any sugar beyond the condensed milk– came out not as sweet as I would have liked :(
    Try making it with 6 egg yolks instead of 3 eggs- it’ll send the creaminess through the roof!

  6. Jesse says:

    Nate– flans kick way more ass than creme brulees. Crem brulees have that bruleed top that requires cracking, while all you need to do with a flan is simply INHALE it. Mmmm.

  7. Mary Coleman says:

    flan with sweetened condensed milk. big fat yum.

  8. Susy says:

    I grew up eating these in Colombia. I LOVE them. I’ll have to make some soon!

  9. Margie says:

    Jenn, can I have dinner at your house?

  10. jennywenny says:

    mmm, those actually look pretty appetizing, despite my distain for cold custard. Maybe I’ll give it a try, I think it may be the only dessert that my husband likes…

    Sorry about the teeth. That really sucks.

    Good suggestion on the caramel…

  11. kayenne says:

    I would agree with Manggy. This flan is a common dessert is many Filipino homes. I would use at least twice as many yolks vs whole eggs. I think I usually go along the lines of 600ml sweetened condensed milk, 3 whole eggs plus 4 yolks. I find all yolk custards too rich… but that’s just me. Some lemon or lime zest sprinkled on the flan before baking adds aroma and flavor.

    The flans can also be steamed over gently simmering water over the same cooking time. Cover tightly with foil and set over a steamer, making sure the water does not touch the ramekins. A simmer ensures that the flan does not heat up too quickly, preventing air bubbles from being trapped in the flan ensuring the maximum creaminess.

    Try this with chocolate/cocoa and/or espresso powder.


    if you keep the flan in the fridge for at least 24 hours, all that caramelly goodness just melts into a wonderful sauce!

  12. Fiona says:

    I’m glad Tony posted that comment – I was considering making this and I *know* I would have been standing there hacking at the caramel in the ramekin. “Come out!!”

    I burned 2 batches of caramel the other day while trying to make apple tarts. Whatevs. So long as I don’t match my 1995 record (exploding caramel on cottage-cheese ceiling), I feel like a winner.

  13. Fiona says:

    Sorry about the root canal, though.

  14. Maja says:

    Sorry to hear about your tooth, great for the organic turkey … which will be pictured after thanksgiving, right? :) I know all about todo novels, i’m procrastinating as we speak … i type … whatever. :) I like the idea of flan, don’t care much about the taste … which makes it a perfect sweet so others eat too much of it and not me, of course. :))

  15. Amy says:

    Ooh, looks, as you say, “creamy dreamy.” I really do love any kind of custard dessert. Sorry to hear about your root canal, but glad to hear about your organic turkey – hope you enjoy it! :)

  16. Lan says:

    oh goodness, how i love Flan. to me, it’s always Flan for Lan. the last time i made flan, i was too impatient to wait for the caramel to deepen in color but how it still tasted good. i’ve never thought to use condensed milk… just thinking about it makes my butt grow a few inches :)

  17. Sally says:

    I hate to post about your tooth problem instead of the beauty of your flan – BUT I am just about to finish a course of antibiotics trying to avoid a possible root canal myself. In a couple of weeks I go for evaluation to decide on my poor tooth’s faith

    a simple question for you, please be brutally honest: does it hurt?????

    (I am a wimp as far as dentists go)

  18. Sandy says:

    I’ll try some cream of tartar and Tony’s method for the caramel.

    I don’t consider this a cheater recipe at all! Maybe one of these days I’ll try vanilla bean, but I’ll stick to vanilla extract for simplicity, thank you!

    I don’t use condensed milk because I like a lighter custard. My mother-in-law steams her flan, but I find it much easier to use the oven & water bath.

  19. Olga says:

    ohmylord!!!!!!!!!!!!!! that looks divine…I would so like one right about now ;)

  20. Mrs Ergül says:

    I lack calcium since I’m adverse to most dairy products! And my teeth suffer the most from this lack of calcium… To avoid being a victim of osteroporosis, I try to consume some milk everyday. I totally know how it feels

  21. Mrs Ergül says:

    (argh I must have press ‘enter’ before I’m done!)

    to have to visit your dentist for some treatmenttttttt!

    I’m just curious how come the photographed flan looks so much shorter than the ramekins you use? Is it due to the angle you use to shoot it?

  22. robin // caviar and codfish says:

    Oh, yay… cheater flan! I’ve never made flan before, and since I’m a pansy, I like to start off with cheater recipes. Thanks!

    Oh, and we got an organic turkey too. For once, I’m actually excited to eat turkey.

  23. mars says:

    wowwww.., i love it..,i’m craving to taste it..,

  24. gwendolyn says:

    This looks fantastic and I’ve already added it to my to-cook-sooner-than-later list, but I’m wondering what size can of sweetened condensed milk? It seems that Canadian cans are different sizes than American cans (go figure), and I want to make sure I have the measurements right.


  25. Aran says:

    oh flan… reminds me of my grandmother. excuse me, i need to go make some now!

  26. peabody says:

    I love cheater flan. Nothing like throwing in the SCMilk to give it the creamy texture.

  27. Binsy says:

    o.k. I actually tried this over the weekend but failed miserably. I stink at caramelizing sugar. The first time, the sugar had a very nice dark color but within a few seconds on pouring into pan, crystallized. The second time, the sugar was much lighter but nonetheless did not crystalize. I was ecstatic but then as I was pouring the water into the bigger container the flan pan tilted and water seeped into it! ugh! I shall try again though. maybe with the right tools next time.

  28. Monzie says:

    these look wonderful.

    ironically i am about to embark on my own flan journey for thanksgiving.

    after seeing your entry the first thing i could think of was *DUH!* why was i making my flan in alumimum pans when i could use ramekins! these look so much prettier. i agree with manggy, this doesnt sound like cheating because Filipinos make flan with condensed and evaporated milk.

    thanks for the great trick with the caramelized sugar. i personally hate making it and always manage to burn myself. i can’t wait to use your techniques tomorrow night when i make my flan!

    =) happy holidays!

  29. White On Rice Couple says:

    Yeah! Cheater flan, hopefully I can pull it off. You know, I love flan but never have made it. If it has the term “cheater” in it, I’m all for it!
    Ouch, I know the tooth pain episode. I’ve been struggling with a bad tooth for the past 3 weeks. Two sets of anti-biotics later, I think I’m ready to go in and get it finally fixed. But I’m scared…..

  30. jenyu says:

    Nate – well, a flan has the caramel on the bottom and the creme brulee has the caramel on top (but it is caramelized after the custard is cooked).

    Rosa – thank you!

    Kitt – yes, I don’t really like that there is caramelized sugar left behind :(

    Tony – Thanks Tony! What a neat trick. I think in general, any crystal acts as a seed for crystallization of the sugar when it reaches that super saturated state.

    Mark – oooh, 6?! :)

    Jesse – hee hee, I like both!

    Mary – :)

    Susy – they’re delicious.

    Margie – only if you can find it ;)

    Jennywenny – Jeremy used to dislike custard, but now he loves it. Perhaps it just takes time?

    Kayenne – wow, I can never seem to get all of the caramel out, even after a couple of days.

    Fiona – people either love it or hate it, no? No worries on the root canal. It’s better than leaving it to rot ;)

    Maja – it’s pictured now! :)

    Amy – I love custards too – all of them!!

    Lan – it’s one of my favs, as well.

    Sally – ummm… I think having a root canal is less painful than the pain of a tooth in need of a root canal. I have a pretty high threshold for pain, though. Just know that it’s worth it. Maybe you can ask your dentist for laughing gas or valium? Good luck, hon!

    Sandy – you’re welcome!

    Olga – :)

    Mrs. E – I take calcium daily b/c of my lactose intolerance (and yet I still make these lovely dairy-ful desserts…) The flans flatten under their own weight and they also widen a little once out of the ramekins. So conservation of volume, really – just fatter and shorter ;)

    Robin – woohoo!

    Mars – it’s easy to make!

    Gwendolyn – I’ve added it to the recipe, but it’s a 14 oz can. Good luck!

    Aran – I guarantee your grandmother made better ones than these :)

    Peabody – creamy, sweet, fattening… all good.

    Binsy – oh no! I’m sorry about that. I hope the next try works.

    Monzie – be safe with the caramel – I hope it works out for ya.

    WoRC – no way. I can’t believe a gourmet like you hasn’t tried flan yet. Hey, take care of that tooth, lady. It gets scarier the longer you wait! xxoo

  31. bee says:

    okay ms. yu, i of the caramel phobia, the one who would never dare try to turn something like a flan out of a pan, am going to make it this weekend. if it comes out great, it’s ‘cos i’m a fabulous cook. if it doesn’t, i’ll tell jai it’s jen’s fault. have a fantastic weekend.

  32. jenyu says:

    Bee – you are too funny. I expect nothing but perfection from you!! :)

  33. Elina says:

    A cheater dessert – sounds like what I need! :D

  34. jenyu says:

    Elina – :)

  35. Binsy says:

    Good news! My third attempt came out beautifully and everyone was asking for recipes. I almost hesitated but finally gave it to them :) It turned out that I didn’t have my heat high enough when I was caramelizing my sugar. It neeed to be on max. Thank you for an excellent recipe!!

  36. jenyu says:

    Binsy – great!

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