Story and Photography by Lucinda Hutson
The word flan sounds as velvety on the tongue as it tastes in the mouth. The silky, soft custard, bathed in caramelized sugar, is comfort food extraordinaire—a simple spoonful possessing the ability to soothe the soul. And since it’s high season for festive entertaining—as well as for colds, the flu and holiday stress—let’s make flan. Use individual ramekins to personalize each custard, or bake a larger version to flambé at the table for a gorgeous holiday spectacle.
Whatever size flan you bake, sweet and seductive aromas will fill the kitchen, paradoxically calming and enticing the senses. Served at a party, or to nurture friends, this token of baked love is sure to delight lucky recipients.
We can give thanks to the Spanish nuns who followed Cortez to America, bringing with them their European culinary traditions. Whereas pre-Hispanics satisfied their sweet tooth with tropical fruits, honey and baked, caramelized agave, the Iberians arrived with something much sweeter. Sugar!
In convent kitchens, nuns whipped eggs, milk and sugar into syrup-laced custard confections—sometimes adding citrus and almonds brought from their homeland. However, they soon grabbed vanilla and chocolate from the treasure trove of New World ingredients to add to their mixing bowls. Cooks today have a seemingly endless array of flan enhancements to choose from—everything from espresso to toasted coconut, to exotic fruits and spices to robust liqueurs.
Some use sweetened condensed milk and/or evaporated milk in their flans; others add cream cheese for a dense texture. Use fresh farm eggs, if possible—their thick, marigold-colored yolks enhance color, texture and taste. Garnish flan with citrus slices or dollops of spicy apple, pear or cranberry compote, or for a pleasant crunch, candied ginger or caramelized cacao nibs.
Flan lends itself to versatile flavorings, garnishes and presentations for the curious and creative cook: think goat’s milk flan steeped with cinnamon sticks and piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) and topped with toasted pecans; almond milk flan with slivered almonds, orange zest and Amaretto; or coconut milk flan with Kaffir lime leaf and freshly grated ginger. And for those lovers of all things sensual and scrumptious, how about a flan laced with the floral essence of natural rose water and pureed raspberries, sprinkled with fresh red rose petals and flambéed with Cognac. Sigh.
Click here for Lucinda's Flan Famoso
(Use alone or in combination, added to steeping half-and-half or milk)
½ Mexican vanilla bean, split, with seeds scraped into milk
Orange and/or lemon zest
Grated Mexican chocolate to taste (decrease other sugar)
Espresso beans, coarsely ground
Grated coconut or fresh ginger
Ground mace, nutmeg, ginger, allspice and/or cinnamon
Fresh aromatic herb leaves like bay, allspice and Kaffir lime
Rose or orange flower water
Tequila añejo, dark rum or brandy
Kahlúa, Amaretto, Licor 43® or Tuaca
Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Chambord
(Use alone or in combination)
Orange or lemon slices on the side, or encircling a larger flan
Edible flowers, rose petals and fresh herb sprigs
Homemade winter fruit compote
Fresh slices of pears, apples or quince
Crystallized ginger pieces
Toasted almonds, pecans, pistachios or walnuts
Kakawa from Cocoa Puro (whole roasted cocoa beans covered in chocolate)
Cacao nibs from Cocoa Puro (available at the downtown farmers market)
Freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon, mace or ginger