Flavorful flan: Making Mexico’s classic dessert

About Mexican Food articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

Flan © Daniel Wheeler, 2011
Flan © Daniel Wheeler, 2011

Bundled up against the cool early morning air of Central Mexico, the “flan lady” arrives at a busy corner in front of our local mom-and-pop grocery store. She brings a small table, sets a glass case on top, and begins to arrange perfectly molded individual portions of the custard called flan, along with glistening, multihued gelatinas, or gelatins, lined up on the case’s shelves. Customers make quick work of the small, sweet treats as they wait for buses or head for the nearby elementary and high school.

Although usually considered a dessert, it seems that in Mexico anytime is a good time for flan. The ubiquitous custard dish that came to Latin America from Spain became particularly popular in Mexico, where it is generally associated with home cooking or humble comida corrida restaurants. Patrons at upscale eateries may find amaretto crème brulee and goat cheese ice cream on the menus, but everyone else happily savors the sweet, silken, caramel covered custard that is flan.

The history of Mexico’s beloved and most famous dessert goes back to ancient Rome, where domesticated chicken eggs were used to make custard, served as either a savory dish or a sweet one flavored with honey. This custard — which became known as flan, from the French word flaon, derived from the Latin or Old German flado (“flat cake”) — endured mostly as a sweet dish in the European culinary repertoire throughout the Middle Ages.

The basic concept of combining milk or cream with eggs, and cooking them to form a custard, was embellished upon through explorations and even invasions, such as the Moorish incursion into southern Spain. The Moors introduced the citrus and almond flavors that became popular variations on the basic custard. And it was also in Spain that a caramelized sugar coating became a signature characteristic of flan.

Nowadays, flan is usually baked in the oven, but there was a time, not too long ago, when most Mexican kitchens did not have ovens, which were found only in large venues such as convents, wealthy homes, and bakeries, where there were vaulted brick ovens used for baking bread. The recipe collection of Friar Geronimo de San Pelayo, an 18th century Mexico City monastery cook, contains recipes for custards that were caramelized on the outside by the application of a wooden paddle that was set aflame.

These custards were prepared on the stovetop, and flan can still be prepared outside the oven, coating the flan mold with caramelized sugar, covering it tightly, and placing it on top of a pot of simmering water. This takes much longer than oven baking a custard, but was the method used in most Mexican homes until ovens became commonplace. Once the pressure cooker became popular in Mexico, cooking flan under pressure saved a lot of the time necessary for the stovetop method.

Whether in the oven or on the stovetop, the basic components of flan making are the same — a custard made with eggs and milk or cream is poured into a mold that has been coated with caramelized sugar. The mold is then covered tightly and steamed on the stove or in the oven. When steamed in the oven, the covered flan mold is placed in a larger pan that contains hot water that comes halfway up the sides of the mold. This is known as a baño maria, bain marie or water bath. If using individual molds, such as custard cups, place a kitchen towel or tea towel on the bottom of the large pan before arranging the small molds in the pan and adding the hot water. This prevents the molds from sliding around in the pan when water is added.

The mold itself can be anything from a flanera, specifically designed for making flan, with a tightly fitting lid, to a regular pie plate or round baking dish. No matter what kind of mold is used, it is important to seal it tightly. If you make flan frequently, a flanera is a good investment. Look for a seamless one with latches to lock the lid in place. If using a mold without a lid, use aluminum foil, pressed tightly around the rim of the mold, as a seal.

Texture can vary almost as much as flavor, and some people prefer a very smooth texture while others favor a more cheesecake-like consistency. One thing nobody likes, though, is watery flan, so don’t skimp on the proportion of eggs to other ingredients, and make sure the seal is tight when the custard is steamed.

Flan needs to be made ahead, cooled after steaming, then chilled in the refrigerator before unmolding. Make-ahead dishes are perfect for entertaining, and flan is no exception. Custard is a nice dessert after any meal, and flan is good any time of year. Try incorporating seasonal fruits and berries. In warm weather, make the flan early in the morning and chill it until serving time. Most flan should chill for at least an hour.

There is always a dramatic moment when it comes to unmolding, but this is made easier by running a warm knife around the mold before inverting it onto a plate. Hold the plate very tightly against the mold and turn the mold over quickly. Between the shape of the mold and the caramel syrup that trickles over the custard, the resulting dessert makes a beautiful presentation.

Flan can take on different flavors, all variations on the custard theme. Orange, almond, pistachio, vanilla and chocolate have long been popular, as have coconut, coffee, honey and cheese. Here are some recipes for flan from MexConnect’s recipe collection, and new ones featuring the bright summertime flavors of strawberries and mangos.

Published or Updated on: June 23, 2011 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2011
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