Crème caramel, a variant of flan, is a classic dessert that’s made with items you may already have in your kitchen: sugar, eggs, half-and-half. It’s slightly lighter and a little less sweet than a standard baked custard, but what really makes it special is its perfectly smooth texture and caramel sauce topping.
The melt-in-your-mouth texture is easy to achieve once you settle on the perfect proportion of egg whites to yolks. (Too many whites produce a rubbery custard; too few, and your custard will collapse.) But caramel is not for wimps. If you get nervous and take it off the heat too early, you’re left with a pale, insipid, overly sweet caramel. If you brave it out for too long, you end up with a bitter, dark, inedible sauce. For something in the middle—a rich, honey-colored sauce with just the right amount of sweetness and complexity—all you need are some clean tools, visual cues, and a little stirring restraint.
Making the Caramel
1. Don’t let sugar stick to the pan sides: Pour the water into a medium saucepan and then pour the sugar into the center of the pan (don’t let it hit the pan sides). Gently stir the sugar with a clean spatula to wet it thoroughly. If the sugar hits the sides of the pan it will stick and not dissolve into the water, eventually causing the caramel to crystallize and ruin the sauce. If you see any sugar crystals sticking to the sides of the pan, brush them back into the water with a very clean wet pastry brush.
2. Don’t stir at first: Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, without stirring, until the sugar has dissolved completely and the liquid has a faint golden color, 6 to 10 minutes. It is during this part of the caramel making that the sugar is most likely to crystallize. These crystals are caused by a combination of undissolved sugar granules or other foreign bits that have fallen into the syrup and agitation. By not stirring, you reduce both the amount of agitation and the chance that any foreign bits will fall into the pot.
3. Watch the color: Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the caramel has a dark amber color, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Caramel cooks very quickly once it starts to show color, so keep your eye on it (don’t walk away from the stove). Turning down the heat and stirring the caramel (stirring is OK at this point) ensures that it will brown evenly.
Test Kitchen Tip: Pouring Caramel
Caramel is extremely hot, so care should be taken during the pouring step. Before making the caramel, ready your water bath by placing a kitchen towel in the bottom of a large baking dish or roasting pan. Once the caramel is ready, slowly pour the caramel into your ramekins or your pan (depending on the recipe), being careful not to splash caramel onto yourself or outside of the ramekins or pan.
Unmolding Crème Caramel
1. Slide a small knife around the custard to loosen it, pressing the custard against the side of the dish.
2. Hold an individual serving plate over the top of the ramekin and swiftly invert.
3. Set the plate on the countertop and shake the ramekin gently to release the custard and caramel. (Some caramel will remain in the ramekin).
4. Dig in.