This iconic pastry has two faces. In present-day French cuisine, the “flan” is simple, popular and imagined to be a French invention. But in reality its roots lie in English cookery - and in royalty! What a double paradox!
Its first appearance dates back to the Middle Ages. Henry IV chose the custard tart as a dessert to delight the many guests invited to his coronation celebrations. The pastry has stood the test of time, becoming a staple of British cuisine. Indeed, when she celebrated her 80th birthday, Queen Elizabeth II asked for a custard tart to be served as the dessert.
Today, it can be found on every continent and, as a basic preparation, it lends itself to all kinds of variations. You may find it being served plain, or flavoured with various ingredients: pistachio, chocolate, lemon, coconut… A multitude of combinations is possible. The pastry shell itself may vary from one region to another.
The “pasteis de nata”, for example, is a fine Portuguese version of the custard tart, encased in puff pastry, and slightly sweeter.
In China, you will find the “dan tat”, or egg tart, served as individual creations.
In Greece, they serve phyllo pastry filled with a custard comprising finely ground semolina and a lemon custard. They call it the “galactoboureko”.
Each country has its own recipe. And in France, what is the definitive version of the custard tart, or “flan”?
The basic definition found in the well-respected Dictionnaire Larousse says that the flan is “a tart comprising a savoury or sweet filling cooked in a pastry crust” or “a turned-out or moulded custard of varying flavours”.
What do our chefs say? Are there different schools or techniques? We asked them.
What makes a good “flan”?
All are agreed that a flan filling must be creamy and not set using gelatine. It must also be of adequate thickness.
As for the pastry, it needs to be “properly cooked and crisp” according to Oikawa.
What are the key stages in making a “flan”?
First of all, you need to be careful when choosing your raw ingredients; they have a very real impact on the end result. Then, be careful when rolling out your pastry. “It must not be too thick,” explains Marc Ducobu. The chefs are also agreed on the complexity of cooking the custard. This is quite a technical stage and requires “a deft touch” according to Arnaud Larher. It must be quite well cooked, remaining smooth and even in texture.
Have you any pointers and advice to share?
The first thing you must do is bake the pastry shell blind, before filling it with the custard; this stops the pastry being undercooked, resulting in a soggy bottom.
When preparing the custard, make sure there are no lumps in it. You can do that by mixing the sugar with the starch first, before incorporating the liquids. Our chefs tell us a smooth custard is an essential part of a successful “flan”.
Any favourite variants?
We have discussed the different variants of the custard tart, but by universal agreement the vanilla version is still the most coveted, followed by the caramel flan! When it comes to eating it, some will tell you they prefer it to be served slightly warm, others nicely chilled. Each to their own - no need to get eggy about it!!
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