One of the best things about working in a kitchen is the access to large amounts of ingredients and professional equipment. At home, if a recipe flops, there is usually much weeping and rending of hair and garments before angrily sweeping the disaster into the trash and going out to the store for more ingredients (don't try to tell me you don't do that, too). At work, I get to objectively study my failures and make notes before immediately weighing out an adjusted recipe and starting over. It's all very scientific.
I decided that I wanted to have flan on my menu, but I found I was unhappy with the results when baking them as most recipes called for. All flans are baked in a water bath to gently set the custard base, but if they're not covered with foil in the oven they tend to get an unappealing, tough skin on the surface. However an impenetrable foil shield can cause its own complications, namely keeping in too much of the moisture, which collects as condensation on the foil and ultimately drips into the flan, spoiling what should be a perfectly silky texture. Furthermore, it becomes very easy to overcook and curdle the flan when you can't see exactly what state it's in.
Not one to let my desserts boss me around, I ended up spending the better part of a week making batch after batch of flan, playing with fat content, temperatures, convection fans, and different amounts and patterns of holes punched in foil. I eventually hit on the perfect method for flan, involving a very specific amount and pattern of holes in the foil, relatively high fat and high convection fans. No matter the size or amount of flans in any given batch, the method results in perfectly silky flans that are never rubbery or bubbly. Provided you have a high-powered professional convection oven.
Like most of you, I do not have a convection oven at home, and my method does not work in a standard home oven. Luckily I was able to adapt the method in just two tries.
Flan is a very simple dessert with few ingredients, but within those ingredients lie limitless possibilities. Don't want to use caramel? You can use firmly packed brown sugar, or even more complex sugars like muscovado. Want a different flavor? You can use part coconut milk for a tropical flair, add a liqueur for subtle flavor or even infuse the milk with a whole range of things, including herbs, spices, nuts, and even vegetables.
This particular flan gets its flavor from summery sweet corn which is infused and then blended into the milk. Even though the caramel contains no butter, the presence of corn makes it taste buttery and rich. And what better way to garnish a caramelly, corny custard than with crunchy, gently spiced kettle corn and fresh berries?
About the Author: Anna Markow is a pastry chef obsessed with doing things that no one else does and giving unusual ingredients their time to shine. You can follow her sometimes-pastry-related thoughts on Twitter @VerySmallAnna.