Flan originated during the Roman Empire. The Ancient Romans domesticated chickens, creating an egg surplus. They developed new recipes to use the 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, which became ‘floan’ in Old French. There is some dispute about how the word "flan" should be pronounced. The reality is there are multiple acceptable pronunciations. The English flan rhymes with "plan", while the Spanish or Mexican style 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, makes use of a pastry shell with an open top filled with custard and frequently mixed with nuts or fruit. In Spain the preferred recipe was sweet, typically prepared with caramelized sugar.
Once the Spanish arrived in North America, the recipe spread throughout the region from South America to the Southwestern United States. Today the recipe is most closely associated with Mexico where flan is a regular on most desert 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 consist of a smooth sided dish that can be baked. Flan dishes are usually 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 the dish is turned over onto a plate. Some dishes even come with a lid and a bain marie, a type of water bath that evens out the cooking process. You will know flan is ready when an inserted knife comes out clean.
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 the preferred style is quite similar to Mexico. The Atencio family, owners of El Paragua (and El Parasol) in Espanola, have their own version with a bit of a kick in the form of brandy or rum. The recipe was inherited from Frances Atencio, family matriarch and the fabulous chef behind the delicious fare served at their Espanola, Santa Fe and Los Alamos locations for the last 50 years.
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. A water bath is a pan of hot water placed in the oven, with the baking dish set 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.
Use a knife or toothpick to make sure the flan is fully cooked. They should come out clean when inserted into the dish. Turn the pan over on to a serving platter so the carmelized sugar is on top. For a spectacular presentation pour brandy or run over the custard and light it to serve it flaming.