Let's start with the basics. To make a flan, you first make a caramel, which you pour into the bottom of your flan mold. The caramel usually consists of sugar, just sugar, melted over low to medium-low heat until completely liquid and a deep amber color. This often creates a problem, as any sugar that doesn't get into the mixture may not dissolve but form a tight crystal. To avoid this, another method - a much easier method - can be used. Add a bit of water to the sugar first, being sure that all of the sugar gets wet, and heat evenly. The other consideration when making a caramel is the saucepan. Only use a saucepan with a heavy bottom (the sides may be thick or thin), as a thin-bottomed pan will result in unequal heating and burnt caramel. And wasted time. But when you get the caramel right and pour it our, don't stress when you don't get it all out of the pan. Besides, caramel is fun to play with for the few minutes before it sets up, thus this picture:
Mexican flan is made with sugar, eggs, milk, and sometimes cream. Puerto Rican flan is made with eggs, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk. The Puerto Rican addition of sweetened condensed milk results in a very smooth texture with a rich but not heavy taste. It's quite nice. With both, of course, the most difficult part lies in baking it properly, not letting it overcook, to ensure the smooth texture. As with any custard, it won't look firm when you remove it from the oven unless you've ruined it. If you could come visit me in my kitchen, I'll show you what it should look like when you remove it. Okay, maybe that's not possible. Let me try to describe it: When you first put the flan in the oven and bumped it, it should have jiggled slightly in the dish the way a glass of milk would. Two-thirds of the way through, if you open the oven and bump the flan, you'll notice that the sides have set up a bit and jiggle more like jell-o than liquid. That's about what you want all the way through. Don't err on the side of more done, though. If it's accidentally a touch less done, the center will be a touch soft. If it's a bit overdone, the eggs will cause the texture to go to a bit of a curdle, and all the luxurious smoothness will be gone. Which would you rather end up with?
Here's where I embarrassingly admit my mistakes. The first flan I made had two problems: 1. I didn't use a water bath, and 2. My caramel didn't all dissolve. I'm telling you these things right up front because they were very important lessons. Being careless only results in wasted time, money, and (if you're like me and insist on trying it anyhow) calories. So while I baked the flan for about the right amount of time, it didn't bake evenly and bubbled on one side while still not done on the other. Also, the caramel was frustrating. Most of all, after it had cooled, it was curdled and not at all what I wanted.
So I was doubly careful when I baked it the next time. To the right is my setup. If you add baking stones to your oven (on a lower rack) and preheat the oven 1/2 an hour, the oven temperature will have fewer fluctuations, since the stones help keep it more constant. The water bath slows the cooking process, as water won't get about 212° (even lower here at higher elevation), and you don't get any hot spots as all the liquid in the water bath stays the same.
Now, about the Flan de Queso. It is amazing. It's kind of like taking flan and mixing it with cheesecake, only it's still very delicate and smooth the way flan is, but the flavor is something all new. Oh, it's so good. Nelson told us his father makes a Flan de Queso that is really tall, so I thought I would go for that in my testing. You don't have to use that option, however, as it would be just as good at normal height, and a bit easier to bake. But that's why it looks different.
One more thing: Mexican cinnamon. It's usually found in small packets in the Mexican foods section of the grocery store (if it's difficult to find, try a store with a larger Mexican foods section). Mexican cinnamon has a very different flavor to me than ye olde standard cinnamon from the spice aisle, but if you are unable to find it, regular cinnamon will also do nicely.
I can't think of any other warnings before I start in with the recipe, except this: invite friends over, or you may eat it all yourself. And good luck!
1 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. water
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk
1 t. Mexican cinnamon
1 T. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°. Place a pan large enough to hold your flan mold in the oven. Fill a large measuring cup (4-8 cups) with water and microwave it on high for 5 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Add the sugar and water to a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. With very clean hands, mix the two together to be sure that all the crystals of sugar have been moistened. Cover the saucepan with a lid, turn the heat to medium, and leave alone for 3 minutes. Then, take the lid off, turn the heat up to medium high, and watch (but resist the urge to stir) for 7-10 minutes, until the sugar is a deep amber. Pour into an 8" (or 9" if you only have that) round baking dish. If you want a tall flan, pour into a 6" x 3" baking pan (a cake pan will do).
In a blender, blend the sweetened condensed milk with the eggs for a few seconds, until an even consistency. Add the evaporated milk, vanilla, and cinnamon, and blend for a few more seconds, until evenly blended. Pour on top of the caramel.
Set the pan inside the preheated dish in the oven. Gently pour the hot water in the preheated dish to form a water bath, being careful not to splash, until the water is about halfway up the sides of the flan mold.
Bake 45 minutes to an hour for an 8" or 9", and perhaps a bit more for a 6" pan. The flan should still jiggle like loose gelatin if bumped when done, but not like water. Remove to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator. Turn out onto a plate before serving, setting the baking dish in hot water for about 5 minutes beforehand if necessary. Mmmmmm.
*For Flan de Queso: Blend 8 oz. room temperature cream cheese with the sweetened condensed milk until smooth before adding the eggs. Follow the rest of the recipe as written, noting that your pan should be deep enough to hold the extra 8 oz. of filling.