These mini chocoflan cakes are wonderful Mexican cakes made up of two delicious layers: flan and chocolate cake that are topped with caramel sauce.
What Is Chocoflan?
Chocoflan is sometimes referred to as the impossible cake (pastel imposible) or magic chocolate flan cake. Chocolate batter is spread over a layer of caramel sauce and a flan mixture is then poured on top. During baking, the cake starts to rise and you’ll see the flan and cake “magically” switch places.
Why Do The Layers Switch Places?
It’s all about density! When you layer the two components, the cake which is generally denser than the flan (depending on the recipe) will sink to the bottom due to gravity. As the cake bakes, the air bubbles expand and the volume of the cake increases, leading to a lower density. Nerd alert! As a reminder, density=mass/volume, the higher the volume, the lower the density.
There’s an interesting video explaining the science of chocoflan if you’d like to watch it.
Getting More Distinct Layers
As fun and “magical” as it is watching the layers switch places, the process is not completely foolproof. Actually, it can be a source of frustration! Here are some of the issues I encountered:
- The two layers aren’t well defined: If the chocolate batter is too thin or if you don’t pour the flan carefully enough, you might end up with pieces of cake dispersed within the flan. Sometimes you might even get a brownish flan.
- The two layers don’t switch places: When baking the chocoflan, it’s very important to preheat the oven properly and use hot water for the water bath (not cold). The initial burst of heat will ensure the leaveners do their job and lighten the cake so that it rises. If the temperature is too low, the cake won’t bake properly and will be very dense. It will also absorb all of the caramel sauce making it cloyingly sweet.
- There are specks of chocolate cake on the flan: Even when everything goes well and the layers are well defined, you might end up with random chocolate spots on the flan.
So today I’m going to share with you another method which will yield better, more consistent results. You’ll start by baking the flan with the caramel sauce. When the flan has set enough, you pour over it the chocolate batter and continue baking until fully cooked.
It does take slightly longer to bake but you’ll be rewarded with two wonderful, distinct layers! No need to peak through the oven every 5 minutes wondering if your cake will rise properly! The mini chocoflans below were baked using this method while the ones in the featured image (at the top of the post) were baked using the “magical” method.
The caramel layer is traditionally composed of Mexican Cajeta which is made with goat’s milk. Since it can be hard to come by, some people replace it with Dulce de Leche. I chose to make homemade caramel as I do when making crème caramel. All you will need is some sugar and water to make a wet caramel.
- Eggs: You’ll need whole eggs to give structure to the flan. If you don’t add enough, the flan won’t hold its shape when inverted and will start to slump.
- Sweetened condensed milk: To sweeten the flan.
- Milk: Use whole milk for the right consistency and optimal flavor. Low fat milk might yield a flan that doesn’t set properly.
- Vanilla extract: To flavor the flan. It is optional and I often skip it.
Some recipes call for cream cheese as well. I chose to omit it for a lighter and simpler recipe.
- Flour: All-purpose flour, for structure.
- Cocoa powder: It’s best to use natural cocoa powder which is acidic and will react with the baking soda to leaven the cake. I have used Dutch process cocoa as well so you can use it in a pinch.
- Sugar: For sweetness and a tender crumb.
- Egg: For structure and moisture.
- Chemical leaveners: Baking soda and baking powder to lighten the cake and give it a nice fluffy texture. I initially made the cake without baking powder but it was too fudgy and didn’t pair well with the caramel sauce. A fluffier cake is perfect for this recipe as it can soak up the sauce.
- Buttermilk: For a rich and tender cake. The buttermilk, which is acidic, will react with the baking soda and provide leavening.
- Neutral vegetable oil: The oil will keep the cake moist even when chilled. I initially tried using melted butter but the cakes felt dry when chilled.
- Flavorings: I love adding a little bit of orange zest although it is completely optional. You can also add a pinch of salt to enhance all the flavors.
How to Make Chocoflan
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (356°F, conventional setting) and place the rack in the middle of the oven. Try to use a tray or grill without edges so it’s easier to remove the ramekins from the oven later on.
- Prepare the baking pan for the water bath: Choose a baking pan that is just big enough to fit six ramekins without them touching each other. Don’t use a very big baking pan or it will become very heavy when filled with water. Place a kitchen towel in the bottom of the pan before putting six 6-ounce (3/4 cup/177 ml) ramekins. The kitchen towel will protect the chocoflans from the bottom heat and will keep the ramekins from sliding. Set aside while you prepare the caramel.
Making wet caramel
- Pour the water into a medium-sized saucepan then slowly add the sugar towards the center of the saucepan.
- Gently tap the saucepan to spread the sugar and cover it with water. Be careful not to splatter any sugar onto the sides of the saucepan. Do not stir, to avoid introducing impurities from the spatula.
- Bring to a boil over medium-high heat (heat 6 out of 9 for example), swirling occasionally to dissolve the sugar. This will take about 5 minutes.
- When it starts to boil, place a lid on the saucepan and keep covered for 2 minutes. The trapped steam will condense and wash off the sides of the saucepan, getting rid of any stray sugar crystals. You can also use a wet pastry brush if needed, to wash down the sides of the saucepan.
- Remove the lid and keep heating until the sugar has caramelized and reaches a medium amber color. The more you cook the caramel, the deeper the flavor and the more bitter it will become.
Tip: Lower the heat to medium-low when the color starts to change to have more control over the degree of caramelization. The caramel can quickly turn from sweet to bitter or even burnt.
- Remove from the heat and immediately pour into the ramekins before it hardens, coating just the bottom. Be careful as the ramekins will heat up. Caramel is extremely hot. Please be very careful when handling.
Tip: If you have some leftover caramel, you can drizzle it on parchment paper using a spoon to make decorations for your desserts.
- Set aside to cool down while you prepare the flan. Don’t worry if you start to hear cracking sounds as the caramel cools down and hardens.
- Boil water in a kettle and save it. We will be using it once the ramekins are ready to go into the oven. We want the water to be hot, not boiling, when we pour it into the pan later on.
Making the flan
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, condensed milk and vanilla extract until combined. I was making half a portion in the pictures below.
- Pour through a fine-mesh sieve set over a measuring cup to get rid of any unmixed egg bits. It will make about 2 cups.
- When the caramel has cooled down, grease the ramekins (above the caramel layer). Pour the mixture into the ramekins, filling them evenly (about 79 g/2.8 oz. per ramekin).
- Place the ramekins in the baking pan then carefully fill the pan with warm water (not hot) until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. It’s best to check the temperature of the water before using it. I use it when it is at around 38°C/100°F or when it feels slightly warm to the touch. If it’s too hot, simply add room temperature water to cool it down.
- Bake for about 30-35 minutes or until the custard is set but still jiggly. Start preparing the cake batter about 5-10 minutes before the end of the baking time.
Tip: You can prepare the dry and wet ingredients separately. Combine them just before you are ready to use the cake batter. The baking soda will start to react as soon as the wet ingredients are added. You should place the cakes in the oven immediately or they won’t rise properly.
Making the cake batter
- In a medium-sized bowl, using a spoon, mix together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside while you prepare the wet ingredients.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, oil, egg and orange zest until combined.
- Add the sugar and whisk to combine.
- Sift the flour mixture over the wet ingredients in two additions and whisk just until fully combined. Don’t overmix.
The mixture will look quite dry and thick initially but will become smooth and runny as you keep whisking.
- Carefully take the baking pan with the ramekins out of the oven. Try placing a drop of chocolate batter onto the flan using a spoon. If it sinks, bake for a few more minutes and try again. If the drop sits nicely on the surface of the flan, gradually cover with chocolate batter, spreading it out evenly with the back of a small spoon. You’ll need about 47 g of chocolate batter per ramekin. You can weigh out the batter in a small cup before pouring it over the flan. Alternatively, place a small plate on the kitchen scale (to protect it from the heat). Using kitchen tongs, place the ramekin on the scale and tare it before gradually adding the chocolate batter.
- Loosely cover the ramekins with parchment paper. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the cake bounces back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake just comes out clean.
- Remove from the water bath using kitchen tongs and place on a wire rack. Cool down completely at room temperature (about an hour) then chill, well covered, for at least 4 hours (ideally overnight).
During chilling, the sugar will tend to absorb liquids nearby and the hard caramel layer will start to turn into a sauce. If you don’t chill the chocoflan long enough, you’ll find that most of the caramel is still stuck to the ramekin.
- To unmold, briefly dip the bottom of the ramekin in boiling water to warm up the caramel. Then gently shake the ramekin left and right (cake side up) until you feel some liquid moving. Place a small plate on top of the ramekin and carefully invert to release the cake. If there is a lot of caramel stuck on the ramekin, place it back in boiling water then drizzle over the chocoflan.
The “Magical” Way
I thought I’d provide some instructions for the “magical way” in case some of you would like to try it! You’ll have to prepare the different components as explained in the previous section but the sequence differs.
- Coat the bottom of the ramekins with caramel. Grease them generously with butter once they have cooled down.
- Prepare the flan mixture, pour it through a fine-mesh sieve set over a measuring cup. Set aside.
- Prepare the cake batter and divide it evenly between the 6 ramekins.
- Slowly pour the flan mixture over the back of a small spoon placed over the cake batter. The mixture will go down in a slow stream when using a spoon and is less likely to go through the batter.
- Cover loosely with parchment paper. Bake in a water bath for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cake just comes out clean.
- Preheat the oven: The oven should be hot when you place the chocoflan or the cakes won’t rise properly.
- Use hot water for the water bath: The water should be at around 54°C/130°F. Don’t use room temperature water or very hot water.
- Make sure the baking soda and baking powder aren’t expired: If the cakes aren’t leavened properly and don’t increase in volume, they won’t rise to the surface.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
The likeliest reasons are that it was undercooked or unmolded too soon. The flan will be quite fragile when taken out of the oven. Let it cool down at room temperature then chill it before trying to invert it onto a plate.
The flan was cooked for too long or at a high temperature and started boiling. Make sure you use a water bath and try to bake for a shorter period or at a lower temperature next time.
If the flan tastes eggy and has a rubbery texture, it was probably overcooked. Try baking it less next time.
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