Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Holy Grail of custard: Pumpkin flan (recipe)

Posted By on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 1:00 PM

click to enlarge pumpkin flan

I’ve eaten a lot of flan in my day, maybe hundreds of pounds. I’ve eaten it in Mexico, Puerto Rico and in numerous other Caribbean locales. I’ve also eaten it Cuban-style, thanks to an old college roommate whose family was from Cuba. I’ve ordered it in every Latin restaurant I’ve ever dined in. I’ve experienced custardy flans, creamy flans, eggy flans and watery flans. I think it’s safe to say that I know my flan. And this flan, dear readers, is the best I’ve ever had. It’s the Holy Grail of flan. It’s flantastic. It is literally caramel-covered crack.

The original recipe for this flan came my way over thirty years ago, when my Aunt Yolanda shared it with my mother. You remember my Aunt Yolanda, don’t you? She’s that swingin’ 60’s chick I told you about a while back. Well, she happens to be a fantastic cook too. (She’s the one who taught me that you should never eat mashed potatoes without some buttery, golden corn mixed in.) And once upon a time, she had a neighbor from Puerto Rico who was also a fantastic cook. I don’t remember the neighbor’s name. We’ll just call her Maria. Anyway, Maria gave Aunt Yolanda her family’s recipe for flan and all others have paled in comparison ever since.

click to enlarge pumpkin flan

Why is this flan so amazing? I think the secret lies in two ingredients that I’ve rarely seen in other recipes – cream cheese and cornstarch. Both of these ingredients appear to bind the others for a firmer, smoother product. While still soft and creamy, Maria’s flan does not have that spongy, waterlogged texture that one often finds with flan. Oh no, no, no! This flan is dense (in a good way) and impossibly rich and velvety. And, you know how a traditional custard flan can sometimes be cloyingly sweet? Well, not this one. The cream cheese adds a little tang that balances perfectly with that sticky, gooey caramel. I would describe it as a cross between a custard and crustless cheesecake.

Another thing about this flan is that it is so darned easy to make. Aside from the caramel, which is a necessary evil in any flan recipe, everything is just mixed together and whizzed up in a blender. And to be honest, even making the caramel isn’t really that challenging.

click to enlarge making caramel

Maria’s original recipe is for a straightforward, traditionally flavored flan. However, it lends itself to lots of different interpretations. Since Thanksgiving is right around the corner, I’ve punched up this flan with some pumpkin puree for the perfect holiday dessert. The mildly sweet and earthy flavor of pumpkin just goes so well with all the rest of that creamy, caramelized goodness.

If you want to knock your friend’s and family’s socks off this Thanksgiving, Make. This. Flan. They will think you’re a rock star and shower you with praise and gifts. (There might even be a little jewelry in it for you.) And, even if they don’t, the pleasure you derive from eating this luscious, caramel-covered crack on a plate will be reward enough!

click to enlarge pumpkin flan

Pumpkin Flan

Note: I find that this recipe works better if the custard is prepared and ready to go before the caramel is made. You can whiz it all up and keep it nearby until you need it. Once you line your mold with the caramel, you can just quickly pour the custard on top. Timing is everything when it comes to cooking sugar!


1 1/4 cups granulated sugar, divided

1/4 cup water

1 12-ounce can evaporated milk

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

6 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup pumpkin puree

5 eggs

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Boiling water


Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

For the Caramel:

1. Combine 1 cup sugar and water in medium, deep, heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved, about 2-3 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high, and boil, without stirring, until caramel turns a copper brown color, anywhere from about 10-15 minutes.

2. Using oven mitts, quickly and carefully pour the caramel over bottom and sides of a 10-inch metal pie plate or a flan mold. That caramel will be screaming hot!

For the custard:

1. Combine the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, cream cheese, pumpkin puree, 1/4 cup sugar, eggs, cornstarch, spices and vanilla in a blender. Blend until smooth.

2. Strain custard mixture through a sieve over the caramel, into the pie plate or mold. Arrange in a large roasting pan lined with a clean dish towel.

3. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan until it comes about halfway up the side of your flan vessel. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. The center of the flan should still jiggle a little when nudged. Cool for about 30 minutes. Chill in the fridge for several hours or overnight.

4. To unmold, run a sharp knife around the rim of the mold and gently shake to loosen. Invert onto a serving plate.


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