In France, a flan is a soft, velvet custard baked in a buttery pastry base. The creamy filling should have a subtle wobble, real vanilla milk flavor and a blistered caramelized top. If you have only ever tasted the rubbery, pasty versions found in most French pastry shops, then you are in for a surprise.
A homemade flan is simply extraordinary. Made from scratch it can be an indulgent end to a family dinner or an old-fashioned and charming dessert for an elegant dinner party.
Although simple to make with everyday ingredients, it does require some planning as traditionally it should cool in the refrigerator overnight then come back to room temperature before serving (although it’s awfully good served warm from the oven).
There are as many versions of this recipe as there are grandmothers in France, and making it with or without the pastry base is the cause of great controversy. Following is a version I like to make. I am in the camp of using a pastry base and make my own, but you can certainly use a good quality store-bought, ready-to-roll puff pastry or pate brisée.
French flan idioms:
En faire tout un flan translates as ‘making a big deal out of nothing’ or ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’.
C’est du flan literally translates as ‘it’s custard’ but means hooey or a bluff.
À la flan is something badly made or of poor quality.
Soft and Velvety French Flan Recipe
Serves 6 to 8
3 ¾ cups (900g) whole milk
1 ¼ cup (300 g) heavy cream
1 ¼ cup (250 g) granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped and reserved
5 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
½ cup (64 g) cornstartch
Pâte Brisée or Puff Pastry
Lightly butter base and sides of a 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Dust a work surface with flour and roll the pastry into a 14-inch circle. Gently transfer the pastry to the prepared pan, pressing into the sides and bottom. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer while you prepare the custard.
In a medium size bowl, whisk the eggs, egg yolk, sugar and cornstarch until smooth.
Combine the milk and cream in a medium size saucepan and add the vanilla bean and seeds. Heat the milk until it begins to steam then remove the vanilla bean pod before gradually whisking the hot milk into the egg, sugar mixture. Return mixture to the saucepan and place back on low heat. Cook, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and immediately pour the custard in the chilled pastry shell. Cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic film and refrigerate the uncooked tart for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
When ready to bake, heat oven to 375° (190°). Position rack in the lower third of the oven. Bake the tart until the surface darkens in spots, 35 to 40 minutes. If you think your flan needs more color at the end of cooking, place under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes. Let the flan cool to room temperature. Depending on taste, serve the tart once it has cooled to room temperature or cover and place in the fridge overnight to firm before slicing.
Charlotte Puckette is a Grand Diplôme graduate of Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu, co-author of The Ethnic Paris Cookbook, as well as a private chef, caterer, cooking instructor, food consultant, and hostess.