Sunday, 20 March 2016

Flan Pâtissier

Hello and welcome to I Attempt To Make Some French Cakes For Nebulous Book Promotional Reasons Of My Own Devising, an occasional series.

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. 

The Process:

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. 

The result: 

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?

The verdict: 

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.

Next time:

MORE CAKE. OTHER CAKE. CAKE. (I have no idea)

Please buy my book, thanking you.


Anonymous said...

i think it is a SPLENDID ACHIEVEMENT! i am terrified of making anything with pastry underneath (homemade or shop bought) - always turns soggy and awful. so in my view, making a flan is a brave ambition. hope it was much appreciated by others in the house...

Alan said...

Wonderful, you should write a recipe book, nobody would cook the dishes, nobody ever does, but it would be the only recipe book in the history of recipe books to be read from cover to cover.

Does this mean that you are now a qualified flâneur?

Artichoke Queen said...

The process of your custard thickening should take 8-10 minutes. Longer than that, your heat is too low. But better too low than scrambled eggs. I vote for choux next. xx

Nellig said...

God that was wonderful. Why can't all cookery writing be like this? I've never seen a professional French flan, but yours looks really delicious. I'm imagining it tastes like a custard tart only better. Oh I'm so HUNGRY now.

Yep, this is how recipe books should be. I feel I've lived through the cooking of a flan, so now I don't need to bother.

Kim said...

Book is pre-ordered - I can't wait to read it. Complete lurker but I always enjoy reading Belgian Waffle, so thank you for many hours of entertainment over the last few years.

blackbird said...

It looks good.
It looks like American cheesecake and, to me, flan is a Mexican creme brulee sort of number.
Nevertheless, I am impressed.
You are brave.

Anonymous said...

It looks delicious!

Anonymous said...

You are amazing. Please write a recipe book. Not only would I read every word, I would feel all the feels... the happy, the sad, the funny...and make every single thing.
It's so lovely how you manage to weave so much emotion and so much of your personal history into a blog post. This is why I will never tire of reading you. I wish it were possible to turn back the clock and erase the sad times but unfortunately things don't work like that. It gives me great hope to see how well you are doing and how utterly fantastic you are despite having gone through hard times when you were younger. Your mother was a wise, wise woman.
More gentleness is exactly what is needed, almost always.

Alison said...

I so want to eat this! My house is a custard no-go area as my husband was traumatised by cold custard skin as a child.

ellen kirkendall said...

It looks quite nice to me. It's Celtic qualities would look very natural next to my end-of-the-winter legs. Maybe the sense of someone else making you a delicious flan is what's missing.

Patience_Crabstick said...

If I were there, I'd eat it for sure! I have never heard of this type of flan. Like Blackbird, I thought flan was a bland, Spanish pudding-type dessert.

Leona said...

Omg. That flan looks delicious! I am an inveterate custard fiend though, so it's no surprise. I have preordered the book also and I'm very excited to read it.

Sally said...

I have bought the book! Well, I have pre ordered it on my Kindle. We're just about to start lambing here, and I'm on my own for 2 days a week (gulp!). Ponies are still fat and furry and Candy the shetland has just had the vet diagnosis of doom - she's far too fat and needs to go on a diet. Candy told the vet that she doesn't give a shit how fat she looks, but to no avail, and she's been forced into a diet and exercise regime. Love sally x

Waffle said...

PICTURE PLIZ SALLY, come on, sort me out with a fat shetland pic, I've been really good. Also, thank you for book buying!

anapestic said...

I think your flan looks very nice indeed. I have very limited patience for cooking things gently on top of the stove. I generally just crank up the heat and whisk more briskly, making sure to reach all the way to the bottom of the pan.

I think that just before turning that into the pastry, I'd add a big dollop of preserves (or lemon curd) so that the flavor gets through the whole flan. Or I'd add some caramel sauce to the top after baking. But then, I think I'd probably just make a cheesecake instead. Chacun a son gout, I reckon.

Nimble said...

That is definitely flan-looking! I find that cooking anything can reduce my appetite for it. The ambition to cook is at an angle to hunger. It's related but not the same. And after a couple of hours of fiddling over something and smelling it the whole time it's hard to fall on it like a hungry camper.

Catherine said...

The flan and the process of making it sounds incredibly similiar to the South African milk tart. I need to send this blog post to my sister, who I was trying to warn off making milk tart because of the endless milk stirring/watching milk boil bit. Painful and frustrating and the key to the whole process as the thing will never set, only thicken after eons of stirring on ridiculously low heat.

Anyway, the flan looks delicious.