Pumpkin Pie Becomes Pumpkin Flan with Caramel Sauce

On Thanksgiving Day I was torn between making flan, a very Mexican dessert, and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Great Pumpkin Pie. I love pumpkin pie. I love flan. Which was it to be? With only two of us at the table, I didn’t need to make two desserts. Why not make a pumpkin flan?

Flan is basically a custard of eggs and milk, sometimes with cream, sometimes not. It comes in a great variety of flavors — vanilla, coconut, almond, corn, orange, and even pumpkin. Mexican flan always has a caramel sauce. Pumpkin pie is also a type of custard, composed primarily of eggs and milk and/or cream. Is there any difference between the two, except that one has a crust and the other a caramel sauce?

So Pumpkin Flan it was, using Rose’s recipe for pumpkin pie, which is the creamiest, silkiest pumpkin pie I have every eaten, and I’ve made and eaten a lot in my time. Find her recipe on the forum, Real Baking with Rose Levy Beranbaum, and in The Pie and Pastry Bible.

I prefer desserts that are not too sweet, so I decreased the sugar to 1/4 cup and doubled the amount of vanilla. Vanilla has an ability to highlight sweetness, so it serves a useful function in a dessert with decreased sugar, as well as adding its own full flavor.

Did I say I decreased the sugar? All that sugar I didn’t use … well it went into the caramel sauce, plus more.  I’m sure there is a scientific explanation for this, but when sugar is caramelized, it is no longer as sweet. But I guess sugar is sugar, caramelized or not. Using a caramel sauce is another reason to decrease the sugar in the filling. If you didn’t, I think the caramel would make it overly sweet.

Let’s get started. First, read the recipe through completely, twice if need be.  Heat 4-5 cups of water to boiling. Get out all of your ingredients, and measure or weigh as called for in the recipe. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Have a large baking dish at the ready, big enough for 7 6-oz. custard cups or ramekins. Now for the caramel sauce.

Caramel Sauce

Put 1/4 cup of sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan. (I have made this in a heavy sauce pan and in a non-stick skillet — either will do the job.) Cook over medium heat, tilting the pan back and forth, until sugar is dissolved.  Continue to cook until caramel reaches a rich amber color. At this point, the dissolved sugar will be bubbling.

As soon as the caramel is nice and dark, add 1/2 cup of room temperature water and 3/4 cup of sugar (making a total of 1 cup of sugar), stirring all the while with a heat-resistant spatula to dissolve the sugar. As soon as the sugar is disolved, turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons of rum, stirring gently.

Divide the caramel sauce among the 7 custard cups.  Caramel sauce heats to a very high temperature, so be extra careful. Don’t put the spoon to your mouth to taste the caramel — your tongue will sizzle! Or sear! And as an extra safety precaution, keep the kids out of the kitchen while you make the caramel.

Put the pan back on the stove. It will have some caramel residue in it, but that’s OK — the small amount stuck to the inside of the pan will dissolve when we cook the pumpkin mixture.

Following Rose’s recipe, add pumpkin, sugar, spices and salt to the pan. Stir until it starts to sputter, and cook 3-5 minutes.

Scrape into a food processor fitted with the metal “S” blade and process for one minute. Next blend in milk and cream. Scrape the sides of the work bowel if needed. Add eggs one at a time, blending each egg for about 5 seconds. Add vanilla with the last egg. Divide mixture among the seven custard cups. Place cups in a large baking dish and pour the boiling water halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes.

The flan is done when a knife blade comes clean when inserted half-way between the edge of a cup and the center of the cup. Carefully remove baking pan from oven and remove custard cups from the baking pan. Be careful as you reach into boiling water. Silicone oven mitts are great for this. If the center of the flan is not yet set, don’t be concerned — it will continue to cook after being removed from the oven. Cool to room temperature on a rack.

Invert cups onto serving dish. The caramel should flow down the sides of the flan. Serve room temperature or cold.

Placing a ginger flower in the photo seemed appropriate, as I used freshly grated ginger in the pumpkin mixture. Little bits of flan broke away when I unmolded the flans and can be seen in the caramel sauce. I started to pick them out, but that effort quickly became tedious. Leaving them in shows a picture of what real cooking looks like sometimes. And it didn’t affect the taste one bit.

If you choose not to make a caramel sauce, whipped cream on top is all you will need and no one will complain.

If you would rather make a pumpkin pie, here is Rose’s pastry recipe, the best pie crust I have every made.   I hope my superlatives do not become tiresome, but Rose’s recipes really are the best in their respective categories.


  • If you used the large-sized can of pumpkin and have left-overs, put the pumpkin puree in a small container and freeze for another time.
  • You can use water or cream instead of rum to thin the caramel sauce. Just be careful when you add liquid, as it will sputter and bubble.
  • Today’s Free Kitchen Tip: whenever you use your can opener with food that is wet, oily, or messy in some way, clean the blades of the opener by closing them on a paper towel and turning the handle as though you were opening a can. You can see in this photo the pumpkin residue on the paper towel.

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