My wife is from Costa Rica, and when we were visiting family there this past summer, I was looking for a dessert that I could make with locally sourced ingredients that would “wow” guests but still be easy to make. When my research uncovered several recipes for flan de tres leches, I think I struck gold. It looks and tastes elegant, but uses only a few ingredients and is ridiculously easy to make. Since the summer, I have refined the recipe and it has become one of my favorite go-to desserts because it’s so easy to make, and tastes sooo good! As an added bonus, tres leches cake is a very popular dessert in Costa Rica and certain other Latin American countries, so just saying the words “tres leches” gets the salivary glands working in anticipation of delicious flavors.
“Tres leches” is Spanish for “three milks,” and three different kinds of milk are the foundation for this flan; condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy whipping cream. It is a rich and creamy custard delight, and is not for those looking to drop a few pounds this week. Of course, I’m recovering from cancer right now and recently lost 25 pounds while going through treatment, so I’m under doctors’ orders to eat this stuff. It’s true. Really!
1 cup sugar
5 eggs + 3 egg yolks
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
1 can (14 oz.) condensed milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream (whole milk will also work in a pinch)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (don’t use the fake stuff.. Really.)
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier liqueur (optional, but adds a nice complexity)
Pinch of sea salt
This recipe will make two pans of flan. I buy the disposable 8-1/2” round cake pans (they usually come in a set of 3), which means less clean-up at the end (yay!). You will also need a roasting pan to facilitate the water bath. In Costa Rica, we didn’t have a roasting pan, so I just set the cake pan inside a very wide sauce pan, and it worked just fine. I have also used a 13×9 cake pan instead of a roasting pan. If you don’t have two of them (to bake both flans at the same time), you can simply bake one after the other. I suppose you could split the recipe in half and only make one, but if you have a few people around, this flan gets eaten so quickly you’ll regret not having two. Trust me on this..
Preheat oven to 350°. Separately, get a tea kettle of water boiling (or a large saucepan of boiling water will work fine). This will be used for a water bath when we’re ready to put our flan in the oven. On the stovetop, pour one cup of sugar into a medium size non-stick coated frying pan. Using a wooden spoon, stir sugar frequently at medium high heat. Eventually the sugar will start to melt. Be patient. When it does start to melt, parts of it will first liquefy and will then re-harden into nugget-like chunks.
At this point, you will think you messed up and things aren’t working, but as the sugar continues to heat, the chunks will then start melting into a liquid caramel. The caramel will turn medium dark brown, but you definitely do not want it to burn, so keep stirring. I also recommend scraping off your wooden spoon with a knife as soon as little bits start to harden on it. Once the bits harden on the spoon and are not quickly removed, they will harden like rock and will not come off until you later soak the spoon in hot water, and will make the stirring more difficult in the meantime. Once the caramel is fully liquefied, pour into the disposable cake pans, splitting the amount between the two pans. Immediately tilt the cake pans to ensure the caramel covers as much of the pan bottom as possible. It will harden quickly and you only get a few moments to ensure pan coverage. Set the pans aside.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolks until they are fully combined and frothy, as if you were making scrambled eggs. Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and fully combine. Pour the mixture into the pie pans on top of the hardened caramel, splitting the quantity evenly between the two. Either earlier in the process or while pouring the mixture into the pans, you might see or hear the caramel cracking. Ignore it, as it has no effect on the end result. Place the cake pan with flan mixture in the middle of the empty roasting pan and pour boiling water into the roasting pan until it comes about halfway up the outside of the cake pan, about half an inch or so. Place the roasting pan in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes. You can easily test when the flan is done by sticking a toothpick in it. When the flan is fully baked, the toothpick will come out fairly clean. If it is covered with flan, bake a little longer. Do not overbake. Once done, remove from the oven and let cool for about an hour. Once the flan is fully cooled, place in the refrigerator overnight.
After chilling overnight, your flan is ready to serve. I think flan tastes best when it is not too cold and has been out of the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. First, using a thin knife, separate the edge of the flan from the pie pan. Be careful as you trace around the edge, but don’t worry too much about how beautiful it is. Once it’s upside down and caramel is dripping down the sides of the flan, no one will notice any errors in your knife work. Choose a rimmed serving dish that has a flat bottom just slightly wider in diameter than the inside diameter of the cake pan. If you don’t have a serving dish, many dinner plates are almost perfectly sized to use as a serving dish. Your guests will be so busy eating the flan, they won’t even notice the dish! Place your serving dish upside down on top of the flan pan, and holding both together tightly, flip quickly so the serving dish is right side up and the flan pan is upside down. Do not remove the flan pan yet! Let it sit for at least 15 minutes while the caramel drips from the pan all over the top and sides of the flan. When you finally lift off the flan pan, you will gasp with delight at the spectacular dessert you just made. And you don’t have to tell anyone how easy it was to make. It will stay our little secret. Enjoy!