Like so many great desserts, the joys of flan first unfolded in ancient times when the Romans began to breed chickens. Their surplus eggs led to the invention of custard and I’ve always believed the idea of turning it into a pie was simply the next natural step. I even doubt whether the recipe has changed that much since then. Looking at flan recipes from the 14th century, it’s amazing to see how familiar they still are. The case was usually made of some version of shortcrust or puff pastry, and the filling usually included a mixture of cream or milk, eggs, something sweet and a touch of spice. Making a flan, then, is like making a piece of history, and one of my favourite incarnations is this recipe for a classic French custard flan.
From ancient Rome, we can follow the flan’s journey to Spain (who drizzled it in caramel) and Portugal (inventors of the famous egg tarts, pasteis de nata), France (flan) and England (custard tarts), Brazil and Argentina, Mexico (who experimented with chocolate, coffee and coconut flavours), all the way to Guangzhou in China, which is believed to be its first port of call in Asia. From there, it hopped from port to port, from Hong Kong to Macau and Taiwan, and travelled across mainland China and the rest of Asia. Today, you’ll find some version of flan on every continent. In South Africa, we’re probably more familiar with the milk tart, which has seen more makeovers than Lady Gaga.
Over the years, my personal journey with flan has been exactly that; a journey. It all started with me wanting to prove to myself that I could out-flan the French – a tall order considering that most bakeries in France are made or broken by the quality of their flan. After experimenting with about half a dozen recipes, I eventually came to the conclusion that custard powder – not corn starch – would give me the light, creamy consistency I was looking for. But years later, something still nagged at me, like a little French voice saying, “You can’t crack it with corn starch? Then it’s not flan.” Which is ridiculous, I know. I mean, custard powder is basically corn starch. But this recipe is as classic as they come, and it’s so good that it has laid that little voice to rest.
750 ml full cream milk
125 ml water
350 g (415 ml) caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
60 g (125 ml) corn flour (Maizena)
smooth apricot jam
150 g (270 ml) cake flour
1 ml salt
20 g (30 ml) caster sugar
75 g (80ml) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
50 ml cold water
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Pour the milk and water into a saucepan and heat to boiling point.
Beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla seeds and corn flour until the mixture is light and fluffy. Gently pour in the heated milk and water and mix well.
Pour the custard back into the saucepan and, while stirring constantly, cook until thick.
Take off the heat and let the custard cool for about 20 minutes.
Pour the custard into lined cake tin and place in the oven.
Bake for 1 hour. Take it out and let it cool. (Note: The custard may still be wobbly when you take it out. Let it wobble. It’s also entirely natural for the top to look like an artist’s impression of the surface of the moon.)
Place the cooled flan in the fridge overnight. Before serving, heat the apricot jam and glaze the top of the custard.
Put the flour, salt, sugar and butter in a food processor.
Pulse until the butter has mixed fully with the flour. Add the water and mix until a dough forms.
Wrap the dough in cling film and let it chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Roll the pastry out onto floured surface. Line a 24 cm, greased springform cake tin with the pastry.