05 November 2009

Flan pâtissier

If you've ever bought a slice of flan in a French pâtisserie, or pastry shop, you'll know it's about the simplest confection in the place, and the least expensive. It's basically a thickened egg custard that, when cold, is stiff enough to hold its shape. You can hold a piece in your hand to eat it.

A French flan is not at all the same thing as a Mexican flan, which is France would be called a crème caramel or crème renversée. The Mexican dessert has to be eaten with a spoon. It's really good, too, and the crème caramel is an old-fashioned classic in France.

Flan pâtissier right out of the oven

Flan seems like the simplest of desserts, but in my experience it's not that easy to make a good one. It's easier to cook than a crème caramel, because the custard mixture contains not only eggs but also a starch — flour or cornstarch — and so doesn't need to be baked in a water bath. What's hard is getting the mixture of starch, milk, and egg right so that it sets up as smooth and creamy as you want it.

Sometimes a flan is baked in a pie shell, and sometimes it's not. All the bakeries around Saint-Aignan, including the little one in our village, sell flans by the slice. Often they are plain, but sometimes they contain fruit like raisins or dried apricots. One of the best-known kinds of flan is called a clafoutis. It's usually made with cherries, but can be made with other fresh fruit — pears, apples, plums, or grapes — as well.

A slice of flan for dessert

A quiche is a kind of savory flan. The nice, delicate lemon tart — tarte au citron — that Walt makes is also a flan.

The flan that's made using flour in the egg-and-milk mixture is called Flan à la parisienne. The version made with cornstarch is called Flan pâtissier. I've made the flour version many times but I've never been satisfied with the consistency. It's kind of pasty.

Here's a recipe using cornstarch, which is much smoother and creamier. « C'est plus fin », you would say in French — it's more delicate, more refined. And it's easy to do. To make it even more delicate, you could put in only egg yolks instead of whole eggs, but then you might have to eat it with a spoon.

Flan pâtissier, a French custard tart

4 eggs
100 g sugar (½ cup)
50 g cornstarch (3 Tbsp.)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups whole milk
1 cup water

Preheat the oven to 400ºF (210ºC).

Combine the milk, the water, half the sugar, and the vanilla in a saucepan and bring it to the boil over medium high heat.

Mix the rest of the sugar with the cornstarch in a big bowl. Add the eggs and beat the mixture until it is smooth.

Slowly pour the boiling milk into the egg mixture, stirring constantly, to make the custard. When it's well blended, pour the custard back into the saucepan and bring it to the boil again on medium heat. That should take one or two minutes.

Pour the custard into a pie shell or a buttered baking dish and cook it for 30 to 40 minutes, until it's browned on top. Cool completely on a rack before unmolding and serving.
Flan is an interesting word. Mexican Spanish borrowed it from French, I'm sure. Actually, a flan is a disk of metal destined to be made into, for example, a coin. It's what we would call a slug. The reason it's used as the name of a kind of tart is that a flat pie pan is also a disk of metal, and the tart you make in it is disk-shaped too. The word doesn't come from Latin, but from old Frankish — a Germanic language.

Here's the flan or custard
before it goes in the oven to bake and brown.

The Larousse Gastronomique says:

Le flan n'est, en somme, qu'une sorte de tarte que l'on garnit avec des fruits, des crèmes, des farces ou avec divers autres articles. — A flan is, in summary, a kind of tart filled with fruit, a custard, a stuffing or various other ingredients.
It goes on to say that there are savory flans served as hors-d'oeuvre and sweet flans served as dessert, and then sends the reader off to the article about tartes. In other words, I can't find any mention of either Flan pâtissier or Flan à la parisienne in the Larousse. But then it's not the easiest book to find things in. I wish there were a searchable electronic version of it.


  1. Wow! That seems easy to do. I'll do that very soon to try that silicone pie pan I bought with you at Intermarché last spring, and see what happens. Thank you for that very thorough study on flan.

  2. Mexican or french... I love flan and it is easy to make.

  3. wow! So interesting. I've been living here for 12 years, and I never knew an ordinary everyday dessert like flan had so much history and variety :)

    In fact, I've never made a simple flan pâtissier, although I've made many crèmes renversées, quiches, clafoutis, and tartes au citron over the years.

  4. Thanks for the recipe and the explanation. I had wondered about the differences between the French and Mexican version.
    Do you serve it for a dinner dessert? Or is it more like a pastry to be eaten with a cafe?

  5. Cher "Cousin"

    FedEx from Southern California is faster to Montreal as compared from St Aignan. :-)

  6. Ken

    Thank you for the recipe. I have never tried to make a flan though I do make crème caramel and I will try it.

  7. um...You've certainly made my mouth water!

    Thank you for sharing the recipe. I plan on making it within the next week.

  8. I love crème caramel. Sometimes when faced with the choice of crème brulée or crème caramel, it takes me a while to decide. Living in South Florida, flan is an everyday thing that can be purchased almost anywhere, or easily made at home. There are even packaged flan mixes that aren't too bad.

  9. Chère "Cousine",
    The distance to Montreal from SoCal is shorter than from St-Aignan, that's why! LOL! - MDR!

  10. Yum, I have never seen a recipe like this one using cornstarch (cornflour in Aus)before. I really like the sound of it and will make it tonight. I'll let you know how it goes for me. Do you blind bake the pastry? I think I will because I won't get your answer before I make it, time differences being what they are.

  11. Oooh, I now understand what clafouotis is! Thanks! I really must make this :)


  12. I love flan, but have never tried to make it since I didn't have a recipe. That has changed now and I will give it a try.

    I often ate this after work when I had my summer job in the bank in Paris. Maybe the cost was part of the reason I chose it. I enjoyed having flan again in St Chamant.

  13. This looks so easy. I will try it out on our next visitors!

    Old-fashioned English custard tart is one of my favourite puddings (or desserts for some of you!). The school-dinner version baked in a pastry case with a thin layer of jam in the bottom is called Manchester Tart, I love that too.
    (Dinners were very good at my old school, but it was in the 1950's and 60's so pre turkey twizzlers.)

  14. ooh Jean, Manchester Tart! That's a blast from the past. I'm tempted to make one now. If my friend comes with her free-range eggs this evening, that's what pudding will be :)

  15. Thank you!
    Love these in france, but online most recipes seem to be for spanish flan (or creme caramel really) so nice to see a lovely recipe!


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?