Croissants and baguettes and cheese and inexpensive wine, yes, please, for sure. But the one thing that makes me happiest in Paris, and that I go back for every day, is flan. It’s the simple, sturdy, workhorse of pastries, a part of the standard selection in almost all of the fancy patisseries, the chain bakeries, the coffeeshops. A little beacon of comfort and civilization and so easy to make that we now have a Parisian flan at home on the Pastry Ranch nearly every week.
They call it flan in France, but we would call it custard pie, or a custard tart. It’s basically vanilla pudding baked into a tart shell, rising to its supreme heights when coconut is added and it becomes Flan de Coco. But it’s a pudding that always confused me because unlike our rich, eggy flan custards, a Parisian flan is pale and starchy, a little rubbery. Before I found a recipe, I would have guessed that it was set with gelatin, given its firm but jiggly texture.
Not so. I finally did find a recipe in Dorie Greenspan’s excellent Paris Sweets book, which she in turn got from star baker Pierre Herme, and the secrets of flan were revealed. Like many French pastries, it turns out that simple is better. The only change I make to it is to add vanilla. And load every third or fourth flan I make with coconut to really make it a sensational, coconut-custard-pie of a treat.
(adapted from Paris Sweets, by Dorie Greenspan)
TIP #1: Leave your eggs out to reach room temperature. I usually set them out an hour or so ahead of time, and before I gather the rest of the ingredients and set up the crust.
Make a pastry dough as described here and have it rolled out and rested. Butter or spray a 9″ cake ring (or a tart pan, or a pie plate, but I love the classic tart edge that a cake ring delivers) and put it on a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat or foil. Drape your circle of pastry dough over and into the ring, press it against the sides, and trim it so that the pastry is even all around and about 2 inches up the sides of the ring. Leave out on the counter to rest while you prepare the rest of the flan.
Into a large saucepan, add:
1 1/2 C whole milk
1 2/3 C water
1/2 t vanilla extract
Heat this to near-boiling as you prepare the egg mixture. Near-boiling is when bubbles appear around the edges of the pan and the surface of the milk is close to breaking. Don’t let it boil or it will quickly boil out of the pot and make a mess; turn it down and keep it warm if it gets close to boiling and you’re not ready for Step 4.
Into your large mixing bowl, add:
Whisk the living daylights out of them so that no egg whites remain visible. Then slowly whisk in . . .
1 C sugar
And then into a strainer set over the mixing bowl, add . . .
1/2 C cornstarch
. . . and even more slowly, tap it through the strainer and into the bowl as you whisk away all of the lumps.
TIP #2: This is a semi-advanced Pastryology skill, the ability to whisk several dry ingredients into eggs to make a smooth, lump-free batter. The key is to add things a little at a time, maybe 2-3 tablespoons of the sugar and cornstarch at a time, and then whisk it into the eggs until you can’t see traces of white before adding more. Just keep whisking and it will all get incorporated. Once you’re done straining the cornstarch, set your strainer over another clean bowl; you’ll need it again in a minute.
When the milk is almost boiling and your egg mixture is smooth and thoroughly whisked, pour about 1/3 of the milk into the eggs WHILE WHISKING. If you just poured the hot milk into the eggs without whisking, you’d quickly have scrambled eggs, but keeping the eggs moving miraculously incorporates the hot liquid. This step is called tempering the eggs.
Now pour the tempered eggs back into the pan with the rest of the milk, set it over medium-high heat and continually whisk it (slowly, so it doesn’t splash) while the mixture heats up. It will take 4-5 minutes of constant whisking, but soon the whole thing will “kick” or begin to thicken all at once. When this happens, reduce the heat and continue to whisk it for another 2 minutes to let the cornstarch cook, which will eliminate a gritty texture to your flan. You must keep it moving or you will have a wicked burn on the bottom of your pot; make sure the heat is low enough that it doesn’t bubble up and try to burn you.
TIP #3: This is yet another semi-advanced skill, and the basis for making any pudding, stovetop custard, pastry cream, lemon curd, hollandaise sauce, or anything else that wants a liquid (in this case milk) to be thickened with eggs. You always whisk the dry ingredients into the eggs and then temper them with splashes of hot liquid before returning them to the pot and whisking over heat until the mixture thickens to your desired consistency. Get this right and you open a whole new cabinet of your Pastryology repertoire.
Pour this mixture back into the strainer, set over another clean bowl, using a rubber spatula to remove the rest of the pudding from the pot, and then use the spatula to push the pudding through the strainer into the bowl and clean off the bottom of the strainer. Let the pudding cool for 10 minutes while you preheat the oven.
At this point, make a crucial decision. Do you want a plain, yet completely delicious flan? Or a coconut flan? If the latter, then fold 3/4 C of unsweetened coconut into the pudding.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Center a rack in the oven.
Use the spatula to transfer the pudding into the pastry shell. Smooth out the top as best you can (I use an offset spatula for this).
Bake for 60 minutes, turning it halfway for even baking. The top should brown nicely in spots, and the browning will accelerate quickly once it starts, so keep an eye on it towards the end and pull it out before it burns.
Put the whole cookie sheet onto a cooling rack and wait 10 minutes before pulling off the cake ring or pan you’ve used. Then use a flat spatula to carefully get under the tart and move it off the cookie sheet and onto the cooling rack. Best eaten when cooled completely, or even refrigerated overnight before serving.
For a list of the tools you will need to make this, go to our Stuff page. See you in Paris! A toute a l’heure!!