Cooking with Mom: Leche Flan

My first and only "Cooking with Mom" recipe was last year, for Goat Caldereta. I can't believe it's taken me this long to do another one, but my mom and I were talking a few days ago about how the blog was doing, and she agreed to do a recipe with me again. This is one of those dishes that will always be close to my heart, and I hope you all try it.

Leche Flan is a quintessential Filipino dessert. It's another example of the influence that Spain had on Filipino cuisine. When Mom & The Aunties are cooking up batches, you know it can mean only one thing...fiesta time. The dessert spread at any Filipino party is incomplete unless there is some homemade Leche Flan. 

It's a custard made of milk, eggs, and vanilla, covered in a rich caramel syrup. When I was a little girl and just starting to like cooking/baking, my mom taught me how to make Leche Flan. She thought it would be easy enough for me to handle, yet complex enough for me to feel like I was really accomplishing something.

"This was one of Nanay's specialties," she told me.

"Nanay" is the Tagalog word for "Mom", and it's what we've always called my late grandmother. The first time we made it together, I remember feeling extra special to have this recipe handed down to me. Although the recipe itself is simple, Leche Flan is rich, creamy, and you just feel like you're eating something extravagant.

To start, making a good caramel syrup is just as important as getting the custard right. Cook it too little and there's no flavor. Cook it for too long and you'll just have a a dark, burnt, and wouldn't be caramel. To help simplify this process, I got the idea from my Salted Caramel Ice Cream recipe to use palm sugar in place of white granulated sugar or even brown sugar.

Traditionally, this dessert is made in an oval-shaped mold called a "llanera". The llanera is then placed directly over the heat, and the sugar is browned that way. These days, making the caramel in a larger, separate saucepan is much easier. 

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the palm sugar. Stir often with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula to prevent burning, and until the sugar is a smooth consistency. As soon as the palm sugar is melted, the golden amber color is automatic. I only needed my mom to take a single peek to get her nod of approval! In fact, a little victory dance in front of my stove was necessary. I had flashbacks to my childhood (okay, even adulthood...) when I would have to ask her, "Is it ready yet?...How about now?...Is this right?...How about this?"

Next, turn the heat to medium/low. Then, cook until the mixture has become a deeper shade of amber, similar to a red-brown ale. Stir every so often to avoid burning and to get a consistent color...Skipping the part where I ask Mom for her approval 800 times as she watches meticulously...the caramel only needs about 2-3 minutes to darken and develop its flavor.

Carefully pour in the water, and expect the caramel to harden and seize into a sticky clump. This is normal. Just keep stirring gently until the clump has dissolved. Once the mixture is smooth again, you can stop stirring. Instead, gently "swirl" the pan once in awhile.

Continue to cook over medium/low heat, until reduced and thickened. The syrup is ready when it coats the spoon like warm honey or pancake syrup.

Divide the soft caramel into five 6-oz ramekins, and allow it to cool/harden slightly so that it doesn't dissolve right into the flan batter when you pour it on top.

To make the flan batter, combine the egg yolks and the whole eggs in a mixing bowl. Using a mixture of both helps to create a dense, creamy custard. Some versions are lighter and more like Egg Pie, and some use egg yolks only. I've always liked this combination of the two.

There is no sugar in this batter...because there is an entire can of sweetened condensed milk instead.

I. Love. Sweetened condensed milk.

My grandpa used to drizzle some over sticky sweet rice, and it was lick-my-plate-clean amazing.

An entire can of evaporated milk goes in, as well. I tried to argue that we could use fresh whole milk instead, but Mom wasn't having any of that...

She also laughed at me because, instead of opening the can entirely, I poked a couple of holes and stood there for twice (maybe three times...) as long to pour out the milk. I got so used to opening evaporated milk this way for halo-halo that I didn't even think. Whoops...

The last ingredients are the vanilla extract and calamansi (aka the "Philippine Lime"). Just a tablespoon of calamansi juice helps to balance the richness and sweetness of the dessert and to heighten all of the flavors of the custard. If you don't have calamansi, a blend of lime and orange will work just as well.

After whisking in the vanilla extract and calamansi juice, strain the flan batter through a fine mesh sieve. Straining eliminates bubbles in your Leche Flan, especially after whisking.

Finally, pour the batter into the prepared ramekins. If this were made in the Philippines, the old-fashioned way, the "llaneras" would be steamed. The only way that I've ever made Leche Flan, though, is by baking. (Well...there was that one time in Pangasinan...)

Place the ramekins in a roasting pan, and pour hot water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Loosely cover everything with foil, but do not tightly wrap. You don't want them to get so hot that they simmer underneath the foil. The foil "roof" and the water bath just help to evenly and gently cook the flan.

Bake the Leche Flans at 350 degrees for 45 minutes - 1 hour. The centers should be set and no longer liquidy. After baking, immediately remove the ramekins from the water bath. Let them cool at room temperature, then transfer to the refrigerator to completely cool and firm up, at least 30 minutes.

Cooking the Leche Flan in ramekins also makes serving individual portions more manageable. (I made one in a large pie dish once and was completely terrified to flip it over...praying it'd stay in one piece.) It also makes for a more appealing presentation than a simple slice on a plate. You get to wow your guests by giving them their own mini-dessert. To remove the Leche Flan, run a sharp, thin paring knife around the sides. Turn the ramekin over onto a small plate, and gently shake/tap until the custard is out. Spoon the caramel sauce right over the top!

With this simple recipe, you can make classic Leche Flan any day of the week. No need for a party! Treat your roomies or family on a weeknight. Alternatively, if you're throwing an intimate dinner party with only a few friends, these little Leche Flan are a great way to end the meal.

Whether you're Filipino and feeling nostalgic, or a newcomer to our cuisine, my mom and I hope you give this sweet and ultra-satisfying dessert a try! :)

Leche Flan (serves 5)

Print Recipe

1 cup Finely Chopped Palm Sugar (about 7-8 small "cakes")
1/3 cup Water
3 large Egg Yolks
2 large, whole Eggs
1 14-oz can Sweetened Condensed Milk (For a less-sweet version, use 7 oz only.)
1 12-oz can Evaporated Milk
3/4 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
1 tbsp Freshly Squeezed Calamansi Juice (*Or 1/2 tbsp Freshly Squeezed Lime Juice + 1/2 tbsp Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and bring water to a boil for the flans' water bath.
  2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, melt the palm sugar. Stir often with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula to prevent burning, and until the sugar is completely melted into a smooth consistency (about 2-3 minutes). Turn the heat to medium/low, then cook the caramel until it's a deep amber color (another 3 minutes). Again, stir the caramel every so often. Next, add the water. The caramel will harden and seize, but gently stir the mixture until everything has dissolved. Cook over medium/low heat until the caramel has reduced and thickened (about 6-8 minutes). Do not stir while it thickens, but gently "swirl" the pan every few minutes.
  3. Divide the caramel into 5 6-oz. ramekins, approximately 2 1/2 teaspoons each. Allow to cool slightly.
  4. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, eggs, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, vanilla extract, and calamansi juice. Whisk together until thoroughly combined. Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve. Pour the flan batter into the prepared ramekins.
  5. Place a roasting pan on the oven rack, then carefully place the ramekins in the pan. Fill the pan with hot water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Loosely top everything with a sheet of foil (do not tightly/completely cover). 
  6. Bake the leche flans at 350 degrees for 45 minutes - 1 hour. The custard should be set and no longer "liquidy" in the center. After baking, remove the ramekins from the water bath to cool at room temperature (at least 30 minutes). Then, cover and chill in the refrigerator (at least 30 minutes).
  7. To plate, run a thin/sharp paring knife around the sides of the ramekin. Do this twice, if needed. Turn the ramekin over on a plate, and gently shake/tap until the leche flan releases. 
  8. Pour the caramel sauce over the leche flan, serve, and enjoy!