Man with a Flan Transcript


    When we first cracked the egg-files we chose to concentrate on isolated applications, keeping the egg safely quarantined. But the time has come to unleash the most potent combination since nitro met glycerin— dairy and eggs. Once combined this duo can be transformed by heat into a creamy quasi-solid possessing infinite versatility.

    Bread pudding, pastry cream, crème anglaise, ice cream, crème brûlé, sabayon, quiche and cream caramel—a.k.a. flan—are all born of this protean substance that we call custard.

bread pudding, pastry cream, creme anglaise, ice cream, creme brûlée, sabayon, quiche, crème caramel, flan

    Of course, we also call it good eats.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Shirley O. Corriher, Food Scientist

    Whether sweet or savory, stirred or baked, all custards adhere to strict physical laws. Now technically a custard is any cooked combination of egg and a liquid.

egg + liquid = custard

    And in Western cooking, the liquid is almost always dairy either milk, half-and-half or heavy cream, which I like. Now, if you were to take one cup of said dairy and add 2 large eggs you'd have what the French call a royale.

1 cup cream
(or half & half)
   2 eggs   

    Now, they use it to bind up just about anything from dessert sauces to Renault engines to quiche which is just a fancy-pants name for what we like to call Refrigerator Pie.

    It all starts with crust. Then you just go through your refrigerator, hunt up some leftovers, just about anything you've got ... yeah, it's frozen [the pie crust]. So what? Come on. Come on. Come one.


    Like I was saying, leftovers. Maybe you've got some cooked spinach. Frozen is fine, too, as long it is squeezed bone dry.

spinach... dry

    And, uh, cheese is also a classic. I like cheddar but you could use Swiss, Gruyere, anything that you want. There we go.

avoid mild cheeses
like mozzarella

    And, uh, I've got some cubed ham here as well. Just toss that all together.

avoid country
style - it's too salty

    The key to this is to make sure that your layers are even and that there is plenty of room for the royale to get in there and move around. Don't pack it too full but I think I could get a little bit more ingredient in there. You do not want it to come up all the way to the top, though, or the egg mixture will cook right up out of the top.

     Now as for the royale, all it really needs at this point is a couple heavy pinches of salt—one, two—and a grating of nutmeg. It's a French thing but it's okay anyway. Doesn't take much. Just a few gratings. There.

2 pinches kosher salt


    Give that a final whisking and then pour it on. The final secret here is to get it very even and to go very slowly. You want the royale to have plenty of room to move around in there. You don't want any air bubbles. You don't want any clumps. It's got to have space. And because it's got eggs in it, it is going to expand in the oven so do not think that you've got to fill this up to the top or you'll have a mess. Of course, if a mess does happen, you've got this on a sheet pan. That will catch any possible mistakes that happen in the oven.

    Now as for the oven, you want to go with 350 degrees for about 45 minutes although I usually start checking in on it in about 35 minutes. There.

45 minutes
check in 35

    Now, what forces could possible convert this messy bowl of goo into a disk of lovely goodness? Well, why are you looking at me?  She's the mad food scientist.

SHIRLEY CORRIHER: Actually, it all begins with egg proteins. Now, picture proteins as little piece of ribbon and they have little bonds holding them together, and then you heat them with custard and pow!  These proteins pop open and then they're floating around, unwound, with their little bonds sticking out. And almost immediately they bump into another protein that's floating around with its bonds sticking out and they join together trapping all these wonderful ingredients in this mesh. And you have a wonderful custard.


AB: Thanks, Shirley.

    Well, 45 minutes has gone by already. Looks done. But, looks can lie. The only way to be sure is to feel. Just push gently. If it feels like said Jell-O, you're there. But if you're really in doubt poke a hole in the middle with a knife, skewer or toothpick—like that—and then push. If liquid comes and gushes up through the hole, it's got more cooking to go. This, however, does not.
    Ah. Whew. Quiche ... oh, sorry, Refrigerator Pie ... is best served, ah, just above room temperature. So let this cool down for at least 15 minutes before you attempt first cut. Now, if you had a big oven and a lot of leftovers you could multiply your one batch of well whisked elixir by, say, oh, 8 and have a party.

    For instance, a little bacon, some sweated-off leeks and gruyére always nice.


    Then, of course, we could go with sautéed mushrooms and Swiss cheese. Always a favorite, one of mine. Certainly a classic.

mushrooms (cooked)

    Oooh, spinach, artichoke hearts and parmesan. Very, very, very continental.

spinach (cooked & drained)
artichoke hearts (canned)

    Oooh, then of course there is last night's roast chicken with a little bit of goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes. Oooh, don't over fill that one. It would be very creamy.

leftover chicken
goat cheese
sundried tomatoes

    Aah, blanched asparagus and smoked salmon. You can't beat that for a Sunday brunch.

blanched asparagus
smoked salmon
(that's another show)

    And then, personally one of my favorites, a fruity French Port Salut and Spam.

port salut

MEN: Spam, spam, spam, spam. Spam, spam, spam, spam. Spam, spam, ...
AB: Silence

Paloma, Spain: 12:41 pm

GUESTS: Custard Lover
             Caramel Fan

    [Alton is reading, "The Big Book of Culinary Lies"] Seventeenth century Spain: a custard lover and a caramel fan are sharing a ride on the cross-town Paloma express when suddenly they encounter a heard of stampeding bulls.

CUSTARD LOVER & CARAMEL FAN: Ooo, aaah, ooo, uuugh, woo ...
BULL: Mooooo.

    As the dust clears, the loan survivor surveys the damage, culinary and otherwise.

CF: Hmm? Mmm.

The Den

    Thus was born, flan.
    Now, I guess the French thought that flan sounded too much like phlegm because they changed it to crème caramel. But, either way it's a deliciously simple egg custard baked on top of a pool of something that when inverted turns out to be a sauce on top. Now, traditionally that something caramel. But, ever-flexible flan is just as adept at showing off the depth of your pantry as the depth of your custard skills. Introducing the software ...

The Kitchen

... one and a half cups of whole milk, a cup of half & half, 6 eggs, half a cup of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract will take care of the custard side of the equation.

1 1/2 C whole milk
1 C half & half
6 eggs
1/2 C sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

  While the traditional role of caramel will be filled by stuff from the pantry and the fridge: blueberry jam, apricot preserves, some ice cream topping—oooh, butterscotch—and fudge. Now, hardware: ...

dessert toppings
fudge sauce

... a roasting or baking pan big enough to comfortably accommodate 8 custard cups with at least a inch to spare all the way around, a glass or stainless steel bowl with a spout, a fine mesh strainer, a small non-reactive saucepan, a kettle of boiling water—and yes, in this case water is hardware—and a whisk. Excuse me.
    You know, these archaic devices are down right indispensable. Have you ever thought about what a whisk really does? Well, it depends on what it's got its tines into. See, the multiplex of thin wires on this balloon whisk are configured to integrate large volumes of air into egg whites, light batters, whipped cream, that kind of thing. The shape is best suited to a bowl. Okay, now the configuration of, say, this French whisk is different. See, it's ideal for working sauces and straight sided pans and it's sturdy enough to thoroughly mix heavier batters, right? Now, this flat roux whisk and this Scandinavian wire whisk are bottom dwellers meant for roux and shallow pan gravies that require some fond{?} scrapping.
    Now, I keep one of these near me at all times. But, if I had to pull a Sophie's choice I'd go with the sturdy balloon whisk with a wide, wooden handle. Why is wider better? Try doing this and get decent RPMs out of a skinny handle. Why wood? It's solid. It won't fill up with water when you wash it.
    Other whisks to avoid, look at this. Flimsy, dumb construction, rust, horrible thing. And this? What is this about? I don't know what it's good for but I know whisking isn't the thing that it's good for.
    By the way, you can use a quality whisk on almost all of today's quality non-stick pans. If you're actually consider buying a pan that says you have to use a special whisk, I'd consider reconsidering ... the pan, not the whisk.

"Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket." -Mark Twain

The Kitchen

    Step one: dairy scalding. Combine your milk and your cream and top it off with your vanilla and your sugar. Now, you want to bring this to a bare simmer over medium heat. Why bother? Lots of reasons. But I'm not going to tell you yet.

med. heat

    Prep the cups by spooning in a tablespoon or two of your favorite jarred thing. You want to come just up, maybe, a couple of millimeters from the bottom. Just guess. Don't measure. Now, besides adding flavor this is also going to protect the custard from the heat coming up from the bottom of the pan. Now, if you really want to keep track of which one is where, just write the name of the topping on parchment on the bottom of the pan. Now, over to les oeufs.

CARMEL [sic]

    You're going to need three of them and three yolks.

3 eggs + 3 yolks

    Now, if you're squeamish about separating eggs with your fingers, just wash them and get over it. It's the best tool for the job. Believe me. Now, why would you want to go so far as to separate such a perfect package as an egg? Well, it's got to do with the additional fat that's inside a yolk and the emulsifiers that are inside the yolk. When they converge with the dairy inside the dessert, they will render an incredibly creamy texture. In fact, for any dessert custard I never use more than half the amount of whites as yolks. And in a stirred custard, heck, I don't use any egg whites at all. So, there we go.
    Of course, there are some refugees involved, namely egg whites. If we were making meringues, of course, it would be egg yolks. Either way, you do not want to waste these liquid assets. So, I pour each individual white into a slot in the ice tray and freeze them.

    Now, before you bring the custard together, you want to whip your eggs until they are slightly thickened and lighter in color. Now if I sound like I'm quoting a cookbook, that's because just about every cookbook on planet earth containing a custard recipe evokes that mantra-like command.

slightly thickened
lighter in color

    Why? Well, it's got to do with egg proteins. You see, giving them a good beating at this point helps them to get ready to denature, breaks up some of those bonds that keeps them so darned self-contained. Think of it as a pre-game warm up. Yeah, these are just about ready. You can see they're slightly thicker, they're very foamy and they're not quite as yellow as they used to be. So, time to introduce our blind date contestants.
    The problem here is that we've got something at room temperature and our dairy mixture which is, of course, hot. Just throwing one of these into the other will result in scrambled eggs. Which, granted, is a kind of custard but not the custard we're out for here. In fact, the temperature difference isn't really the problem. It's the speed at which the temperature could change if we were to throw them together. You see, the faster that eggs heat the quicker they are to curdle.

    So, basically they want to have some time to get to know the hot stuff and it's a process called tempering. Now, make sure your bowl is nice and stable. I've got a towel kind of made into a circle here to help hold the bowl. Take your hot stuff and suspend it about, oh, a foot above the eggs. Start whisking before you start pouring. Now, slowly drizzle about a quarter of the hot stuff into the room temperature stuff. This is going to slowly raise the temperature of the eggs which is what we want. Nice and slow. Do not stop whisking at this point our sadness will result. Now, at this point the eggs are tempered. In other words they've increased their temperature by at least two fold so, it's safe to go ahead and add this back into the hot. So, we move the whisk and go the other way.


    Now, you may have noticed that there ... that the egg to dairy proportions in this dish are greatly different than those in our refrigerator pie. Why? The reason is sugar.


    Now, here we have some egg proteins just hanging around, getting ready to cozy up to one another. Uh-oh. Here comes some sugar molecules. They're so humongous that the proteins can't get around them to reach one another. So, if we want a sweetened custard to set we've got to add more eggs.


The Kitchen

    Next step brings the strainer into play. We're going to move the custard one more time into our spouted bowl. Now, why bother straining? Well, if any of the egg did curdle this is going to catch it. No problem. But even if you did manage to keep your temper, there's another reason for staining locked away in the egg itself.

    Now, I'll just get down Grandma Brown's egg here. There we go. Now, say this is an egg ... with a see-through shell, of course. Now, there's the white or albumen. There's the air space. The yolk. Now, that bungee cord looking thing is the chalazae. Now, that's a Greek word that means hailstone. No, that's not a nomenclatural conundrum that I'm comfortable contemplating right now. What's important is that it's essentially a rope of egg white that twists itself into being as the egg travels from the ovary to the nest. Its sole purpose is to keep the yolk centered in the egg.


    Now, the fresher the egg the stronger or pronounced the chalazae. Okay? And this thing can't be bought off, alright? You can't whisk it out you can't bake it out. So, unless you like your custard chunky-style you're either going to have to strain it out or wait it out. Cause indeed as the egg ages the chalazae will dissolve. The problem is so will the membrane around the yolk and that will render the egg almost un-separable.

The fresher the egg, the more pronounced the chalazae.

The Kitchen

    Now, evenly distribute your mixture. And go a little short on the first pass. The reason is is that if you try to fill them all the way up this pass you will run out before you get to the end, I promise.

    Next step is the oven. Get it right on the middle rack of a 350 degree oven then go for the water.


    The point here is to come right up the side of the ramekins, but just up almost to the same level as the liquid in the cups but not quite all the way. There. Now, carefully slide your rack in.

    Now, how long until this is done? Unfortunately, until it's done. There's no hard and fast answer. I usually go 25 minutes and then I start checking.

start checking after 25 minutes

    Now, why the water?

Test Track

    Because, it's a long, long trip to custard and how you travel it matters. Now since we scalded that mixture before pouring it, it's already hot but it's got a long way to go to become custard. How far?

    Well, let's just say for a minute that this little four-by-four is your custard and this little test track we've set up represents all the temperatures it's going to pass through on its way to the sweet spot, the setting point where liquid becomes ethereal dessert.

setting point

    Now, you'll notice that this point is very close to the failure point. That's the curdling temperature where, well, basically all the proteins in the eggs are going to lock up so tight that they'll squeeze out all of the moisture. You'll open the oven and find little, yellow hockey pucks floating in water. So, the whole goal here is to get as close to that temperature as possible while avoiding that one.

curdling point

    Now, there are a couple of different ways to make the trip. Now, let's say we crank up our oven to 400 degrees and we just put our custards on a metal pan and slide them right in there. Oh, yeah. We're going to reach that sweet spot real fast. [crash]  Another custard lost to demon speed.
    We'll try again. This time let's go with a 350 degree oven. Moderate. And we're going to add that hot water to the pan. Now since water heats so much slower than either metal or air and since it's, at least at sea level, can not exceed 212 degrees. It will act as a built in insulator allowing heat to slowly move in and set that custard so that now we've got perfect control. Ah, ha. It would seem that low and slow is definitely the way to go with custard.
    Now you'll notice that I stopped just shy of the mark. Why? Carry-over my friend. The temperature is going to go up another degree or two by the time you get those custards out of the pan.
    Now speaking of the setting point, what is it? Well, I can't tell you. That's because the slower you get to it, the lower it gets. Literally. The setting temperature goes down the slower you cook the custard. Pretty cool, huh? Of course, custards don't come with pop-up thermometers so how do you know when they are done?

The Kitchen

    Cooked custards wobble but they don't fall down. They also don't ripple like, you know, a rock dropped into a pond. They just kind of shake back and forth like that. Now if you are not a 100 percent sure, just take the tip of a sharp paring knife and insert it about half way between the edge of the cup and the center of the custard. About there. If it comes out clean, then it's time to evacuate.

    Now this pan of 200 degree water is just as hot now as when we first put it in. So don't take it out. Just use spring loaded tongs—I like to put rubber bands on the end—to evacuate the finished flan to a towel lined sheet pan.

rubber bands

    The towel will soak up any water and prevent any spin-outs. Now, let these cool on the counter then wrap tightly and chill and serve whenever. As for this scald waiting to happen [pan of water], just turn off the oven and come back for it when it's cooled.

Before 1600, "custard" referred to a pie's crust, not its filling.

The Living Room

    Ah, luscious love from below. Now, um, I kind of like desserts that I can hold and eat at the same time, mmm, I'm kind of greedy that way. But, uh, if you really do want something that looks more sophisticated and, well, just plain taller, here's a little restaurant trick you can try. Just take your flan and take your sharpest paring knife and run it right down the side of the ramekin, flat against the side. And then turn the bowl. Do not move the knife. Just keep it pressed against the edge and turn the bowl until you've made it all the way around once. There you go. Then, plate on top, secure with thumbs and fingers and give it a good whomp. Liquid love.
    Now, we hope we've sparked your appetite for and your interest in the culinary alchemy that is baked custard. But granted, we've just scratched the surface here and we expect you'll do some exploration on your own.

    But, you must remember the custard code: remember, the higher the egg to dairy ratio the firmer the custard will be, you must whisk, you must strain, you must cook low and slow and you really should pull it just a little bit before you think it's ready.

Custard Code:
more eggs, thicker custard
low & slow
pull early

    Stick to these and I promise your next custard will be ... you know.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010