Flan, crème brûlée, pot de crème, crème caramel…Why all the different names for what seems to be the same dessert?
They're all baked custards. They all require the use of a water bath. And they're all silky smooth, creamy, and delicious. But there's more to it than that…
Flan, a popular Spanish dessert, is typically made with milk and whole eggs. It's baked in large or individual molds that have been lined with caramel. The whole eggs allow flan to be unmolded and still hold its shape. When flan is inverted onto a plate, the caramel sauces the custard.
Crème caramel is the French name for flan.
The favorite French dessert crème brûlée is substantially richer than flan. It's usually made with heavy cream and egg yolks, and it isn't firm enough to unmold. Once the custard is set, sugar is sprinkled over the top and caramelized using a culinary torch or broiler, yielding a shatteringly crisp caramel topping that's a delicious contrast to the velvety custard beneath. Crème brûlée is often baked in broad, shallow individual molds because more surface area means more caramel topping. (If you ask me, part of the pleasure of crème brûlée is tapping the crust with a spoon—I love to hear the crack of the caramel before I take the first bite.)
Pot de crème is made with heavy cream and egg yolks but may include milk or whole eggs. It's luxuriously rich and cannot be unmolded successfully, so it's served in the vessel in which it's baked, be it traditional lidded pot de crème mold, ramekin, or other oven-proof cup. I think of pot de crème as crème brûlée without the brûlée topping.
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup water
3 cups milk
Grated zest of 2 oranges
5 large eggs
Pinch kosher salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine ¾ cup of the sugar and the water in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, brush down the sides of the pan with water, and boil for 6 to 7 minutes, or until caramelized. The sugar will be fragrant and a deep amber color when it is caramelized. Working quickly, divide the hot caramel among 10 ramekins, swirling each ramekin so that the caramel coats the bottom and half way up the sides.
Preheat the oven to 325˚F Combine the milk and orange zest in a small saucepan and heat to a simmer. Whisk together the eggs, salt, and remaining ¾ cup of sugar in a medium bowl. Continue whisking while adding the hot milk in a thin stream. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Stir in the vanilla and skim off any foam from the surface. Divide the mixture among the ramekins and place them into a roasting pan. Add enough hot water to the roasting pan to come half way up the sides of the ramekins and bake for 38 to 42 minutes, or until just set. Remove from the water bath and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours, or until firm.
To unmold, run the tip of a paring knife around the inside of each ramekin and invert onto a dessert plate.
Serves 10. Good any time of year, but especially in the winter when citrus is in season. You can tell that the flans are done when they jiggle like gelatin. Flans may be baked a day or two in advance and kept covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator. Unmold just before serving.