Two words which make me think of my childhood: condensed milk. We always had a can of it in a green plastic container on our kitchen counter, mostly for making a Vietnamese coffee (best coffee in the world, btw). This might also be the reason that I’m only 5’3”. Or genetics, whatever. I’ll always remember our old bitch of an electric can opener that would leave the edge of the can sharper than a samurai sword, so getting into that condensed milk carried a sense of danger as well. None of this easy safe pull-ring business that they have nowadays. No wonder kids these days are so soft – I blame ring-pull cans. And also the internet, because they’ll never feel the pain of having to trek all the way to the library to photocopy pages out of encyclopedias for school projects.
Condensed milk appears to be fairly innocent but it’s actually quite evil – made from real milk but with all the water removed and a lot of sugar added. So it’s not exactly healthy but not that bad either. Heat the can for a while and it becomes toffee. Basically, if I were an item of food, I would be Condensed Milk.
My mum used to make this spectacular flan for our family dessert, although in a huge steamer on her stove rather than a bain marie in the oven. The Vietnamese basically copied the French Crème Caramel but cleverly adapted it with condensed milk, presumably due to the lack of fresh dairy, although my version also has loads of fresh dairy in it anyway because I live in a country where milk is somehow only $2 for 2 litres. The sweetness in the custard comes entirely from the condensed milk. It’s a rich silky eggy custard but in pannacotta form, with its own slightly bitter toffee sauce to cut the creamy richness. The best part is the centre bit (like any cake) because it’s perfectly smooth and luscious, and makes you want to dive in and roll around naked in it. Okay maybe that’s just me.
This flan is easy to make and chances are you’ll already have most of the five ingredients, maybe even all of them. And if you don’t have any condensed milk, you should seriously stock up on them. Every time I go to buy some at the supermarket, there are hardly ever any cans left on the shelves which causes me to start panic buying in case of a shortage. Apparently it lasts for years, and did you know that you can make the most amazing fudge just with condensed milk and some melted chocolate? If that’s not a good enough reason to stockpile condensed milk then I don’t know what is.
Some tips for you: to minimise the amount of air bubbles, try not to whip too much air into the mixture and keep the heat low, and don’t over-bake. If your caramel accidentally goes past golden brown into burnt sienna territory – which can happen within seconds – don’t just decide to use it anyway because your creme caramel will taste like a bitter old woman and ruin the custard and any chances of you ever knowing true happiness. I like to use a small cake tin or glass pan because I like my desserts as tall as possible, purely for time-saving/face-saving purposes so I don’t need to cut myself another slice and look like a greedy pig. It’s always important to have a dessert-eating strategy in place, people.
1 can condensed milk (not reduced fat)
6 egg yolks
2 cans of whole milk (measure using the empty condensed milk can)
1 cup (250ml) pouring cream
150g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Set oven to 150 degrees celsius. Heat the sugar in a heavy pan over medium heat until sugar begins to caramelise. Swirl pan as the sugar melts to evenly caramelise the sugar – it will become a golden brown. Do not stir the caramel as it may crystallise. Be careful not to let the sugar burn as it will taste very bitter. Immediately pour the caramel into a 20cm tin (not springform) or glass baking dish and tilt pan to evenly coat the base. Caramel will harden.
Beat the eggs and eggs yolks together in a large bowl. Add the condensed milk and stir until combined. Add the 2 can-fulls of whole milk and the cream. Stir in the vanilla extract. Strain this mixture through a fine sieve into the baking pan to remove any eggy lumps. The caramel on the bottom will become the top of the flan and also the sauce when it is turned out.
Place the creme caramel in a larger baking pan, fill the baking pan with boiling water to come up two-thirds high of the creme caramel.Bake for 1 hour or until the custard is set (it will have a wobble in the centre but should not be still liquid). The creme caramel will be slightly wobbly in the centre but should not appear too liquid. Remove from the baking pan and let cool. Refrigerate until cooled or preferably overnight.
Run a knife around the side of the tin to loosen the creme caramel. Place a large plate on top of the tin and invert onto the plate.