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Flan: A simple pleasure that's simply beautiful -- and yummy.

Byline: David Tanis

There's something about a dessert that can be served with the bottom on top.

Examples? Pineapple upside-down cake, of course. A classic French apple tarte Tatin. Sticky buns. What they all have in common is a deeply caramelized underside, which, when inverted, becomes the fragrant, glistening, burnished cap that everyone admires.

Flan (or creme caramel or creme renversee, depending on where you are) is another example, the custard topped with that caramel crown.

Custard is one of the easiest desserts to make. It is simply a mixture of milk, eggs and sugar poured into a vessel and cooked until set. It may be plain, with a drop of vanilla, or with an added flavor like coffee or chocolate. I like to infuse aromatic herbs or spices into the milk mixture for a more subtle effect -- a small amount of rosemary or bay leaf, or some crushed cardamom seeds.

Spanish cooks often add orange juice and zest. For this flan, I chose to combine spice and orange, and to use blood oranges, since they are in season now. The ruby red juice is delicious, with a somewhat tropical flavor, so I always squeeze a little extra.

The only tricky part about flan is making the caramel for the bottom of the mold. With a little practice, it's easy to master the technique. It's just a matter of melting sugar until it caramelizes (that is, turns brown). Try to make it as brown as you can, but remember: It will keep browning even after removed from the heat. Take care not to touch the hot caramel, as it can burn you badly. Once you have poured it into the mold and it sets, you can take a break, then finish the custard later.

I like to make individual flans, as they cook more quickly and are easy to unmold, but a large flan can be cooked in a wide earthenware or ceramic dish or pie plate. They must be chilled for at least two hours to become firm. Cooking them a day ahead is preferable.

Flan makes a fine dessert: light, creamy and not too sweet, with a pleasant hit of burnt sugar. A simple pleasure.

For the cook, there's a moment of satisfaction, too, when the flan successfully emerges from its mold and holds its shape, looking beautiful.

Blood Orange Flan

For the caramel layer:

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons blood orange juice, from about 1/2 orange

For the custard:

2 cups half-and-half

1 wide strip lemon peel, removed with a peeler

2 wide strips blood orange peel, removed with a peeler

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

6 cardamom pods, crushed

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/4 cup sugar

2 drops pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup blood orange juice, from 2 to 3 medium oranges

3 large eggs

For the blood orange caramel sauce (optional):

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup blood orange juice, from 2 to 3 medium oranges

Time: 11/2 hours, plus at least 2 hours' chilling; yield: 6 servings.

1. Make the caramel layer: Have ready 6 four-ounce ramekins. Put sugar and 1/2 cup water in a wide saucepan over medium-high heat. Let mixture simmer without stirring until water has evaporated and sugar begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Shake pan and continue cooking until sugar is quite brown and beginning to burn. Off heat, carefully add 2 tablespoons blood orange juice. Stir with long-handled spoon to incorporate, then pour or spoon some of the caramel into bottom of each ramekin, dividing evenly. Caramel should set. (This can be done several hours ahead.)

2. Make the custard: Warm the half-and-half over medium heat in a saucepan until hot but not boiling. Add lemon peel, orange peel, coriander seeds, cardamom pods and fennel seeds. Add sugar and vanilla extract; stir to dissolve. Turn off heat and let mixture steep for at least 15 minutes. Whisk in orange juice.

3. Beat eggs in a mixing bowl. Temper the eggs by slowly whisking 1 cup of warm half-and-half mixture into the mixing bowl. Pour contents of mixing bowl back into the saucepan and combine with remaining half-and-half. Strain into a wide-mouth pitcher with spout.

4. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Pour strained custard mixture into prepared ramekins, filling each to the top. Place ramekins into a roasting pan in a single layer and add hot water to the pan to reach halfway up sides of ramekins. Cover pan with foil and bake until custards have set, 30 to 45 minutes. To test custards, insert a paring knife. It should come out clean, and custard should not be wiggly. Remove from pan and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate ramekins, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 2 hours or overnight.

5. Make the blood orange caramel sauce (if desired): Simmer sugar and 1/2 cup water in a wide saucepan over medium heat. When water has evaporated and sugar begins to brown, swirl pan until caramel is very dark, almost burned. Off heat, carefully add 1/2 cup blood orange juice and stir well to dissolve caramel. Pour sauce into a serving pitcher. Cover and leave at room temperature until you are ready to serve (or chill if you are leaving it overnight).

6. Remove ramekins from refrigerator 15 minutes before serving. To serve, run a small knife around the inside edge of each ramekin to loosen custard. Invert ramekin over a shallow soup bowl or dessert plate. Carefully remove ramekin to reveal a custard topped with a caramel layer. Serve with blood orange caramel sauce, if desired.
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Title Annotation:Living
Author:Tanis, David
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Feb 16, 2014
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