Part One: Flan Pâtissier
Taking this picture was a colossal and unsuccessful ballache, as you can see. I cannot haz foodblog.
Flan pâtissier, which is a set, sweetened egg custard in a short or puff pastry case, has a starring role in my book. When I first moved to France in my year off to become an assistante, teaching entirely indifferent teenagers "English" by looking at the pictures in Smash Hits, I became rapidly obsessed by flan. I think it might have been partly a homesickness thing, because flan is the most comforting of comfort foods: creamy-beige in colour as all the best culinary comfort blankets are, undemanding, simple, sweet, even a little stodgy. If crème caramel has a sensuous wobble, flan has only the slightest of trembles, indeed often it doesn't move at all except to slip down and settle gently into your stomach. This is not a criticism, I love it still and always. I'll pick a flan above almost everything else in a bakery.
When I got back to England, I discovered it was almost impossible to find flan there - probably because it's so resolutely unglamorous and not at all how we imagine French patisserie, no frills, no colour, no curlicues, no grandstanding.
I eventually found one supplier - a crumbling gilt and stucco mittel-Europ bakery on Queensway called Pierre Pêchon, now sadly gone. They used to have flan occasionally, creamy yellow and sticky topped in a damp paper case, nestling between the fondant iced lemon boats and Viennese fingers. I would sometimes go there on my way to the Porchester Turkish baths down the street. My mum used to often send me thirty quid to get the bus to London and go to the Baths when I was mad and sad and bald in Oxford and it did help, sort of: you lie in the dark and the warm and it's very peaceful and for a couple of hours you can be gentle with your awful body that you hate, surrounded by other women being gentle with themselves. On the way there, I would buy a flan and hide it in my locker, sweating slightly in its white paper bag, waiting for me to emerge from the tepidarium. It was my escape from everything and I loved it.
When we moved to Paris, I spent most of my free time wandering the streets, buying flan. It was my tiny nugget of routine in our rootless early weeks, with a sleepless baby and an anarchic toddler; my treat, my self-soothing. I ate flan almost every day for months and only didn't get fat because I spent the rest of my time walking the streets, pushing a buggy, breastfeeding and getting into fights with pensioners. "The Paris Diet", recommended by 1 out of 10 survivors.
You can't really get flan in Brussels. They sell something called flan, but it's a poor substitute, dense and claggy in a wet, soft, too thick pastry case with a leathery brown sponge top. It's no kind of cake at all, so it was about time I learned to make my own proper flan.
I found my recipe by searching for "flan pâtissier inratable" ('can't fail flan') on the Internet, then dithered for a couple of hours, decided on a combination of this one and this one and went for it.
I cannot pretend it was hard or that there was much culinary jeopardy involved, though obviously I would like to.
First you unroll your pre-made puff pastry because you are not a lunatic and have enough self-knowledge to know that making your own puff is an expensive and time-consuming fool's errand for a baking dunce such as yourself. You prick and refrigerate it thus:
I tried to fashion a sort of parchment cross to lift it out of the tin, which did not have a removable bottom. This was only partially successful.
Next, you beat up three eggs, a bit of cornflour and a glug from a litre of milk with an electric whisk
whilst heating the rest of the litre of milk plus sugar and vanilla to boiling point
That's about €3 of vanilla NO PRESSURE HEY.
When the milk starts to boil, you pour it into your egg/cornflour mixture, still whisking.
You return the whole lot to the pan and heat on a very low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spatula (at this point you realise the professional looking whisk you have purchased is entirely redundant for this recipe) until it starts to simmer ("laisser frémir quelques secondes, pas plus" warns the recipe) and thicken.
Emma's note: This last phase, which I expected to be a white knuckle ride of imminent curdling, took approximately ONE MILLION YEARS. I have RSI and back pain from stirring and my nerves are shot with the strain of wondering if there would ever be any detectable "frémir"-ing or not and of not giving in and whacking the heat up. I don't know whether it's supposed to take one million years or whether my very low heat was in fact far too low, but I was not risking it and thus the remainder of my life was spent, worriedly agitating milk and eggs.
When it starts to thicken or your confusion and dismay at the lack of frémissement becomes so total you can no longer stand it, take out the pastry case, pour the custard in and stick it in the oven at 180° for 35-40 minutes. This is long enough to take the dog for a short walk that it may or may not wish to actually go on. Leave to cool and eat cold, ideally the next day.
Emma's note: I did this on non-fan assisted and it took considerably longer than 40 minutes and several bouts of agonised poking and never coloured at all, palely loitering in the oven like a goth in hot weather.
I love how it looks like it has an actual halo. The thing underneath is a mini-flan I had to make with the leftover mixture, about which the less said the better.
Well, it's definitely a flan, just a flan that was wearing SPF 50, apparently. A Celtic flan. It tastes like a flan, though I am missing a glaze on top and were I ever to do it again (ha, unlikely), I would put some apricot jam on the top, I think.
This is probably its best angle:
I feel like it's giving flan realness? At least a little?
Despite the flan's indubitable success at being a flan, my creation left me somewhat cold and empty. I don't know. I find I don't want to shove it in my mouth like I normally do with flan. Perhaps this is just because I now know what happens in the flan sausage factory? Is it the lack of apricot glaze? Or perhaps it's a side effect of all that stirring or simply the result of my natural ability to be gloomy about my all and any achievements, but there it is. Le Flan et le Néant. A big, creamy shrug. Bof.
MORE CAKE. OTHER CAKE. CAKE. (I have no idea)
Please buy my book, thanking you.