When the Romans learned about chickens from the Greeks, prior to around 500AD, eggs became available in great quantities. Suddenly, eggs and their endless uses, became fashionable. Savories came before sweets, but ultimately, eggs found their way into desserts. Roman recipes found their way to Spain, where flan—a smooth eggy custard—rose to haute cuisine. When the Spaniards sailed to Mexico, flan recipes were on board. As long as a cow provided milk and cream and chickens produced plentiful eggs, flan was the dessert of choice, even in the lowliest household.
Don’t confuse flan with crème brulée. Crème brulée requires playing with fire to achieve that crunchy sugar topping. Flan is the equivalent of crème caramel, in all its variations. The texture is slick and firm. Like a pineapple upside-down cake, flan is baked with a prepared syrup on the bottom of the ramekins or baking dish so that when the baked flan is flipped onto a plate, the caramel flows like amber lava, coating the vanilla custard with a mouthwatering glaze. In Barcelona, the flan is robust, but I also like the crema Catalan, as it’s served in Mallorca. It’s lighter in color and flavor. I find Mexican flan less sweet and heavier than those in European or Central and South American countries, but it’s always the perfect dessert after a heavy meal. Flan just slides down your throat without effort. Like most custards, it’s easy on the tummy: just what the doctor ordered.
You don’t have to travel to Spain, the Balaeric Islands, Mexico or the Latin Americas to savor flan in its native territories. If there’s a Spanish, Hispanic or Mexican restaurant in your neighborhood, chances are it’s on the menu. If not, it should be! España, in St. James, has been touted as having the best flan in the area. It makes flan in a baking dish and cuts portions to be exquisitely arranged on individual, decorated plates. In addition to vanilla flan (my favorite, when it’s done right, with a vanilla bean for intensity, as opposed to vanilla extract), España makes flan in several fruit flavors, plus a rich chocolate custard garnished with chocolate ganache. If you let owner Julio Caro know there’s a birthday guest, he may delight your party with a Happy Birthday flan, including a candle for wishing upon. (I’d wish to return here for more flan!)
La Pirilla, in Port Jefferson Harbor, makes silky flan, perfect for following their generous comfort-food servings. Their outdoor seating is a charming setting for the cool flan dessert on a warm day. Gallo, in Patchogue, makes a five-milk flan that echoes the Colombian heritage of in-depth tradition.
Flan is fairly easy to make at home. And spring time is when local chickens really start to lay. The steps are similar to most custards. The blending and baking need vigilance. Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe, which will really impress your family or dinner guests, you can expand your repertoire and have everyone raving about your creativity for months.
Larousse Gastronomique, that French food reference tome, treats flan like a tart, with a pastry crust to define it. This ponderous reference book is the only one I’ve found to mention a crust. Everywhere else the custard is poured directly over the caramel syrup in a shallow baking dish or in individual ramekins.
Practice on this simple recipe before attempting the coconut flan below, since the latter is more expensive to make, and it would be a good idea to try it and like it before forging onward and upward.
This recipe has been in my files since the early ’90s.
1¾ cups whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
Pinch of salt
½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup sugar
⅓ cup water
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
Preheat oven to 350° with rack positioned in center of oven.
Combine cream, milk and salt in heavy saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into cream mixture, then add bean. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and let steep 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine 1 cup sugar and ⅓ cup water in another heavy medium saucepan. Over low heat, stir until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to high; cook without stirring until syrup turns deep amber, brushing sides of pot with wet pastry brush and swirling pan occasionally, about ten minutes. Quickly pour caramel into six ¾-cup ramekins or custard cups. Using oven mitts—the baking dishes will be hot—and working quickly, immediately tilt and swirl ramekins to coat sides. Set ramekins into a 13- x 9- x 2-inch baking pan.
Whisk eggs, yolks and 7 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl until just blended. Slowly and gently whisk cream mixture into egg mixture, preventing as much foaming as possible. Pour custard through a small sieve into the ramekins, dividing evenly. Custard will fill ramekins. Pour enough hot water into baking pan to go halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Bake until centers are gently set, about 40 minutes. Transfer flans to rack and cool. Chill until cold, about 2 hours. Cover and chill overnight.
To serve: Loosen each flan by running a small sharp knife around the sides. Turn over onto individual plates. Shake gently to release each flan. Carefully lift the ramekins so the caramel syrup runs over the flans. Garnish with your choice of candied violets, chocolate ganache swirls, whipped cream with strawberries or raspberries, etc.
Coconut Crema Flan
For the caramel:
½ cup sugar
⅔ cup water
For the custard:
1¼ cups water
3 ounces creamed coconut, chopped*
2 egg yolks
1½ tablespoon superfine granulated sugar
1¼ cups light cream
Sliced banana or slivers of fresh pineapple
1 to 2 tablespoons freshly grated or shredded unsweetened coconut
Have ready 8 ramekins or custard cups, about ⅔ cup capacity. Preheat oven to 3oo°.
Place the sugar and water in a saucepan, heat gently to dissolve the sugar, stirring constantly. Bring to a rapid boil without stirring, wiping down the sides of the pot with a wet pastry brush as needed. Leave no granules behind. When the mixture turns a rich golden brown, immediately remove the pan from heat and dip the bottom into cold water to stop the cooking. Quickly pour the caramel into the baking cups and swirl to coat the sides.
To make the custard, using the same saucepan, pour in the water, add the coconut and heat, stirring constantly, until the coconut dissolves.
Whisk the eggs, egg yolks and superfine sugar in a bowl until fully integrated. Add the hot coconut milk slowly, so as not to cook the egg mixture, and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the cream and strain the mixture into a large Pyrex glass measuring “cup” with a lip.
Set the baking dishes in a roasting pan; fill with cold water halfway up the sides of the cups. Pour the custard mixture evenly into the dishes; cover with parchment paper and bake for about 40 minutes, until set.
Remove the dishes to a cooling rack; cool and then chill overnight. To release the custard from the cups, slide a sharp knife around the edges and turn upside down on a serving platter of individual dessert plates. Garnish with slices of banana (toss with lemon juice to avoid browning), slivers of fresh pineapple, grated or shredded coconut or other exotic fruit, such as kiwi or mango.
*Creamed coconut is mature coconut grated and sold in a block. It’s found at many online sites, including Amazon.