A Recipe Inspired by the Romans
Flan originated during the Roman Empire. The Ancient Romans domesticated chickens, creating an egg surplus. They developed numerous dishes based on eggs, including the custard concoction known as flan. The original recipe had savory and sweet variations. The recipe survived the demise of the Roman Empire, spreading throughout Europe and the Middle East. During the Middle Ages both the sweet and savory variations were popular, including those prepared with cheese, spinach and fish.
The word ‘flan’ is derived from the Latin word ‘flado,’ meaning flat cake. The word became ‘floan’ in Old French. There is no consensus on pronunciation. The English flan rhymes with “plan”, while the Spanish or Mexican pronunciation of flan rhymes with “faun”.
As the recipe spread to other countries, it was adapted to suit regional tastes, with additional ingredients added based on availability. The Moors added citrus and almonds, which are still common ingredients used to flavor flan. England, with its love for pastry crusts, uses a pastry shell filled with custard, frequently mixed with nuts or fruit. The Spaniards prefer their flan sweet, typically topped with caramelized sugar.
Flan Arrives in the New World
When the Spanish arrived in North America, the recipe spread throughout the region, from South America to the Southwestern United States. Today the recipe is closely associated with Mexico, where flan is a regular on most dessert menus. The Mexicans took flan to a whole new level. They created coffee, chocolate, and even coconut versions.
Flan molds are de riguer for making Spanish style flan. The molds are smooth sided dishes that can be baked. Flan dishes are made of glass, pyrex, porcelain, or stainless steel. The key is a dish with a smooth interior surface so the flan drops out in one piece when it is done. Some flan dishes come with a lid and a bain marie, a type of water bath that evens out the cooking process.
Flan is almost as common in New Mexico as it is in Mexico. Like others, we have adapted the recipe to suit regional tastes, though our regional preferences are similar to Mexico.
The Atencio family, owners of El Paragua (and El Parasol) in Espanola, have their own twist on the recipe, adding brandy or rum. The flan served in their restaurants is based on a recipe inherited from Frances Atencio. Frances was the family matriarch, and a fabulous chef, responsible for creating the menu that is still served at the family’s restaurants in Espanola, Santa Fe and Los Alamos.
- 1 3/4 cup sugar
- 3 egg whites
- 8 egg yolks
- 2 large cans of evaporated milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 6 Tablespoons brandy or rum (optional)
- Put one cup of sugar in a deep baking dish or loaf pan. Place over heat and melt sugar, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat when it turns golden brown.
- Swirl it to evenly coat the bottom of the pan. Cool.
- Beat the egg whites and yolks with the remaining sugar, milk and vanilla. Strain the mixture into the pan on top of the carmelized sugar.
- Cover and place in a water bath. Cook for 1 hour at 350 degrees. Create a water bath by placing a pan of hot water in the oven. Place the baking dish in the water to even out heat distribution. The water bath adds moisture to the oven, which is vital when baking cheesecakes or custards to avoid cracking or a rubbery consistency.
- Check the flan using a knife or toothpick. It should come out clean when inserted into the dish.
- Turn the pan over on a serving platter so the carmelized sugar is on top. For a spectacular presentation pour brandy or rum over the custard and light it immediately before serving.
Please leave your recipe modifications and/or questions in the comments below.