I have been to eat at "The" Columbia Restaurant since as far back as my memories go. Eating Arroz con Pollo in the little courtyard with warm rays of sunshine filtering through and throwing pennies in the fountain outside were always the highlights. It wasn't until I got older that I found an appreciation for the dessert that my dad always ordered and passed around for us all to share; flan.
Then, like anything else I find that is amazing in life, I want it all the time. Every restaurant I went to I would search for it. The creamy custard and sweet caramel has taken over my brain. The thought to make it myself from scratch never really crossed my mind. Caramel is an intimidating thing for me - one wrong move and you could experience the worst pain of your life.
Then my mom and I drove down to St. Augustine for lunch at the Columbia a few months ago and a walk down St. George street. As I was waiting outside the ladies room a framed photograph caught my eye...
It is really hard to read in the picture but it says:
Columbia's Special Flan
4 c whole milk
1/8 t salt
1 t vanilla
1 c sugar
6 T sugar
Pour milk into a large saucepan, add salt and scald. Remove from fire and add 1 cup of sugar, stirring until it is dissolved. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs until slightly foamy. Add the milk and sugar mixture gradually. Add vanilla. Stir well and strain. In a small skillet, melt the 6 tablespoons of sugar until they are a light golden color. Coat a 1 1/2 qt. tubemold with the caramel. Pour the custard mixture into the mold and place the mold in a shallow pan with water halfway up the side of the mold. Bake the custard at 300 degrees for approx 1 hour or until set. Custard is done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool thoroughly before inverting into a shallow serving plate. Serves 6-8.
I obviously don't have a tubemold so I made my recipe in 6 medium-sized ramekins.
I researched many different methods for creating the caramel so I could narrow down what I thought I was comfortable with. This site was a huge help in mastering the basics as well as defining the discernible difference between using whole milk as opposed to sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. Using whole milk results in a lighter texture. After 4 unsuccessful attempts, I decided to just go with the original recipe's method of melting the sugar in a small skillet. I think it was the simplicity of the directions that threw me; it couldn't be that simple! But it really was. Trick is to constantly stir the sugar until all the clumps are smooth. The caramel browns pretty slowly as I was on about a medium heat, so I had total control. I've burnt caramel before and it's not a flavor I want to taste again.
The caramel sauce is always my favorite part of flan, so I went back and made a second batch of the caramel as the first 6 tablespoons barely covered the bottom of each dish.
I will definitely be making this on a regular basis now that I know it is so simple! The finished flan last for about 4-5 days in the fridge and definitely got tastier every day!