This Naturally Sweetened Flan Is Still Rich And Creamy

*This recipe appears in the Naturally Sweet cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen

Flan is a rich, custardy dessert with a deep toffee flavor and a uniformly silky texture; what sets it apart from other custards is its caramel layer, which bakes along with the custard and glazes the flan after baking. But most recipes we’ve tried are cloyingly sweet, the custard is heavy and dense, and there’s an unappealing thick “skin” on the top after baking.

For our naturally-sweetened version, we started by cutting the sugar from a whopping 45 grams per serving to a more modest 22 grams by swapping the usual granulated sugar for a smaller amount of maple syrup. We loved the unique flavor that maple syrup brought to our flan, and we had no problem making a caramel out of the syrup: We simply cooked the syrup on the stovetop for 5 minutes to thicken it to a caramel-like consistency.

To make the custard, many traditional recipes call for sweetened condensed milk—a nonstarter in our low-sugar recipe. Instead, we opted to make a custard using half-and-half, eggs and egg yolks, and a bit more maple syrup, a combination which produced a rich flavor while maintaining a silky smooth texture.

To prevent an unsightly “skin,” we baked the flan in a water bath so that it would cook gently, and we covered the pan with foil during baking to avoid exposing the custard to direct heat.

While traditional flan is often baked in a round cake pan, we found that switching to a loaf pan produced a sturdier, more statuesque flan. For safety, be sure to use a tall-sided saucepan to cook the maple syrup in step one. The test kitchen’s preferred loaf pan measures 8 ½  by 4 ½  inches; if you use a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan, start checking for doneness 10 minutes earlier than advised in the recipe.

Maple Flan Recipe

Serves 8

Ingredients:

3/4 cup maple syrup
3 large eggs plus 4 large yolks
3 cups half-and-half
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions:

  1. Bring ½ cup maple syrup to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Once simmering, cook, stirring occasionally, until syrup reaches 260 degrees and smells slightly burnt, 5 to 8 minutes. Carefully pour syrup into 8 ½  by 4 ½ -inch loaf pan and tilt pan to coat bottom evenly.
  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Line bottom of 13 by 9-inch baking pan with dish towel and bring kettle of water to boil.
  1. Whisk eggs and yolks and remaining ¼ cup maple syrup together in large bowl. Combine half-and-half, vanilla, and salt in medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until just steaming, about 6 minutes. Slowly whisk warmed half-and-half mixture into egg mixture until well combined. Strain through fine-mesh strainer directly into loaf pan with caramel.
  1. Cover loaf pan tightly with aluminum foil, place in prepared baking pan, and transfer to oven. Carefully pour enough boiling water into baking pan to reach halfway up sides of pan. Bake until center of custard jiggles slightly when shaken and registers 180 degrees, about 1 hour.
  1. Transfer pans to wire rack. Remove foil but leave custard in water bath until loaf pan has cooled completely, about 1 hour. Remove loaf pan from water bath, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled and firm, at least 30 minutes or up to 4 days.
  1. To unmold, run paring knife around edges of pan. Invert serving platter on top of pan, then turn pan and platter over. When flan is released, remove loaf pan. Using rubber spatula, scrape residual caramel onto flan. Slice and serve.

Before: 45 grams sugar → After: 22 grams sugar