Over the years, I’ve happily stayed with one basic formula for making baked caramel custard. And, because the satin smooth dessert is so similar to a number of other classic caramel cream desserts, depending on the occasion, I might opt to call caramel custard, “flan,” “crème caramel,” or even “crème brûlée,” if the custard is to be presented with a crunchy topping of sugar caramelized with a handheld torch.
Indeed, there is nothing complicated about making familiar baked custard, but for custard to have that luscious caramel flavor, you’ve got to caramelize some sugar. There was a time I caramelized sugar in a saucepan on top of the stove, but often – in the seconds it took for the sugar to advance from golden brown to rich amber – the sugar burned.
I use the microwave for caramelizing sugar now and while the process still requires diligent monitoring, the method has proven very efficient. Sugar gets super-hot when caramelized, so be sure use a product like Pyrex glass, or even laboratory glass, for the task.
If you’ve been daunted by the thoughts of preparing desserts made with caramelized sugar, let your microwave oven lend a hand. Made for more than cooking frozen dinners or popping corn, your microwave might just be the sweetest friend you never knew you had.
For the caramel
¾ cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
¼ teaspoon lemon juice
For the caramel:
Combine the sugar, water and lemon juice in a 2-cup glass Pyrex measuring cup. Cover with a piece of wax paper. Microwave on HIGH power for 2 minutes. Remove paper and microwave for 1½ minutes more. Watching carefully, so sugar does not burn, microwave at 20-second intervals on HIGH until mixture reaches an amber (honey-like) color. (Do not allow mixture get too dark, as sugar will continue to cook and darken even when it is removed from the oven. If your sugar smells burnt, it will taste bitter, and you will have to start over.)
Very carefully swirl sugar onto the bottom of a 1 ½- to 2-quart Charlotte mold, pudding basin, or 3- to 4-inch deep casserole. (The pan will be very, very hot, so be sure to place a pad under the pan to protect your counter top, or table.) Set pan aside and allow syrup to harden. While caramel is hardening, make custard.
For the custard
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
Fresh whole milk (use empty sweetened condensed milk can for measuring)
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the custard:
Pour sweetened condensed milk into the container of an electric blender. Using the empty condensed milk can, fill it to the top with milk, then pour the milk into the blender along with eggs and vanilla. Blend until well combined, then strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve. Pour mixture into mold or casserole on top of hardened caramel. Place mold into a baking pan large enough to hold the mold. Pour boiling water halfway up sides of pan.
Bake for 1 hour until golden and a wooden skewer inserted within 1-inch from edge of custard comes out clean. (Do not be alarmed if the middle of the custard looks “wobbly.”) Carefully remove pan from oven and place it on wire rack to cool. Once cool, refrigerate several hours, or overnight, until cold.
When ready to serve, run a thin spatula along edge of custard to loosen slightly. To unmold, invert custard onto a platter, allowing sugar to run down sides.