Dessert, Dairy Free, Gluten Free


I started making flan months ago, obsessed with all things creamy (custards, mousses, puddings, and curds), and when the dust settled there were two contestants standing for the final round-Flan and Creme(less)Brulee. To pick a winner I was looking for high scores in three different categories: texture, taste and ease of preparation. With equal marks in taste, the brulee took a slight lead in the ease of preparation category. That left one round: texture.

To be honest, I expected the creme(less) brulee to take home the gold medal. Appearing on far more restaurant menus, creme brulee holds more clout with American audiences than flan. And I was swayed by its star power, I was drawn into its vortex of celebrity and hardly glanced at the flan. What a mistake!

Now, if you’re sitting at your computer shaking two brain cells together in an attempt to figure out the difference between creme brulee and flan, let me save you a trip to Wikipedia. Creme brulee: more cream, less egg. Flan: more egg, less cream. It is that simple. Creme brulee is literally “burnt cream,” it is the flavor of slightly thickened and set cream. Flan, on the other hand, lets eggs shine as both the structure and flavor of the dessert.

It was this small but crucial difference that finally put flan in first place. Because I was making both custards without dairy, the fat content was significantly lower than traditional recipes. While I love the flavor of vanilla scented cream, the dairy free creme brulee presented one major problem-it took too long to set in the oven. By the time it came out and cooled, it was slightly grainy. When I took it out earlier, to avoid the grainy quality, it never fully set and left me with ramekins full of soupy custard. This is when my love affair with flan began. The additional egg in the custard base meant that the lack of dairy fat wouldn’t be a problem-this custard would set because of its pure eggyness.

Once I settled on flan as the winner of the 2010 Custard Games, it was time to glam it up a bit and give it the star treatment it deserved. I made batches of flan with various flavored extracts, but they left a heavy and unbalanced flavor through the custard. Realizing I wanted something subtler, I steeped the coconut milk and vanilla with tea bags in three different batches-raspberry, early grey, and rooibos. The tea flavoring method had two significant advantages: It was unbelievable easy, and the tea bags left  the custard gently scented, exactly what I wanted. Unfortunately, when blended with the egg mixture and baked the tea-steeped coconut milk left the custards and unpleasant shade of grey (fine for serving myself, horrid for company).

In the end I realized the easiest way to flavor the custard was with a few slices of fresh fruit. I sliced up some bananas and placed them in the caramel sauce in the bottom of each ramekin. When I ladled in the custard, the banana slices floated and mingled with the delicious liquid. As everything baked together, the flavors blended and distributed throughout the custard. I can’t think of a fruit I wouldn’t like in here, peaches, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, plums-everything makes my mouth water.

Free of Gluten, Dairy, Soy, Corn, Nuts and Tree Nuts

  • 1 cup Sugar (for the caramel sauce)
  • 1 banana, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups Coconut Milk
  • 1 Vanilla Bean, split and scraped (or 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract)
  • 3 Eggs
  • 2 Egg Yolks
  • 1/3 cup Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt

Get Busy

  1. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. You will need 5 ramekins or one large casserole dish set on top of a dish towel in a large baking pan (more on this later).
  2. Pour one cup of sugar in a pan over medium-low heat and step away from your stove. Don’t touch it, don’t stir it, don’t whisk it. If you need to do something to put your mind at ease, just give the pan a little shake. In 10-15 minutes, you’ll have caramel. While it’s still warm, pour 1-2 tablespoons into each ramekin. Do a little dance and tilt the dish to swirl the caramel around the sides.
  3. Add 3-4 slices of banana to each ramekin.
  4. In a sauce pan combine the coconut milk and vanilla bean scrapings over low heat.
  5. Fill a tea kettle or another sauce pan with water and bring it to a boil. You’ll need this later.
  6. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar and salt until pale yellow and slightly thickened.
  7. Remove the coconut milk mixture from the heat and drizzle it slowly into the egg mixture, whisking all the time. If you pour too quickly you’ll end up with scrambled eggs. So slow down, cowboy. Pour a thin stream and whisk whisk whisk.
  8. Pour the custard base through a strainer and then ladle it into each ramekin, roughly 2/3 cup per dish. Set the filled ramekins on top of the towel in the baking pan. The towel helps to prevent burnt bottoms.
  9. Slide the baking pan into your oven and then pour the simmering water in the pan, around the ramekins. Be careful to keep the water out of the ramekins and fill the baking pan until the water is about 2/3 up the ramekins. This will help evenly bake the custards.
  10. Bake the flan for 28-32 minutes or until the custard is gently set. It should tremble ever so slightly at your touch, a precious jiggle in the middle of the ramekin when you give it a tap on the side.
  11. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and allow them to cool for an hour on a rack. Then cover them tightly with plastic wrap and set them in the fridge to chill.
  12. When you’re ready to eat, simply run a knife around the edge of each ramekin before turning it over onto your plate. Give it a tap, a little shake, close your eyes and say a prayer, then lift the ramekin away! Dessert!

Prep. Time: 30 minutes
Baking Time: 28-32 minutes
Yield: 5 ramekins