Flan is one of my favorite desserts. It’s so creamy and fresh, sweet and vanilla-y; what more could you ask for on a sunny day? And in Los Angeles, it’s sunny 360 days of the year.
The name flan comes from the French “flaon,” which has been derived from “flado,” meaning flat cake in Latin.
The dessert I’ve grown to love is your basic Mexican dessert, where it’s considered “comida corrida” or “food on the run”. Essentially, it’s a sweet treat you can enjoy anytime of the day. Perfecto!
Flan first came to Mexico through the Spaniards. Not surprising. But did you know the custards that flan was created from stem all the way back to Roman times?
The Way of Custards
The first flado came about when domesticated chickens and the surplus of eggs they were producing prompted Romans to adopt a trick from the Greeks: mixing eggs with cream. These first custards were either savory or sweet, with the sweet recipes making great use of the region’s honey.
As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the footprint of custard dishes. The sweet versions remained a staple in European society well into the Middle Ages. The Moors began making dishes that included citrus and almond flavors, while the caramelized sugar was added by the Spanish. These custards are much more similar to what we now know as flan as far as ingredients and flavors are concerned.
In 1440 A Boke of Kokery (Book of Cookery) was published with 182 recipes, including one for a dish called “Custard Lumbarde.” Unlike the simple flan that I love, this British recipe is for a type of pie that includes pieces of fruit or meat in a sweet or spicy custard sauce. Look for the text and it’s translation in today’s English after the photos.
Take good creme, and leuys of Percely, and yolkes and white of egges, and breke hem thereto, and streyne hem all þorg a straynour till hit be so thik that it woll bere him self. And take faire Mary and Dates, cutte in ij. or iij. and prunes, and put hem in faire coffyns of paast. And then put þe coffyn in an oven, And lete hem bake till thei be hard. And then drawe hem oute and putte the licoure into þe coffyns. And put hem into þe oven ayen. And lete hem bake til they be ynogh, but cast sugur and salt into þi licour whan ye putte hit into þe coffyns. And if hit be in lenton, take creme of Almondes and leve the egges. And the Mary.
In present day English:
Take good cream, and mix in leaves of parsley. Break the yolks and whites of eggs into the mixture. Strain through a strainer, till it is so stiff that it will bear (support) itself. Then take good marrow, and dates cut in 2 or 3 pieces, and prunes, and put them in nice coffins (pastry cases). Put the pies in the oven, and let them bake until they are hard. Then take them out and put the liquid into them, and put them back in the oven. Let them bake together until done, but add sugar and salt to the liquid when you put it into the coffins. And if it is in Lent, take cream of almonds and leave out the egg and the marrow.”
In 1475, an Italian cookery text elevated custards to the level of health food. I think we should go back to this way of thinking!
Custard at that time was believed to help those with liver, kidney and chest ailments, and was also thought to increase fertility. It was the eggs used in these dishes, praised for their benefits, that led to these associations.
In the late 19th century, American food companies seemed to adopt these ideas by marketing custards as health foods, particularly for invalids and children. Although their claims might have actually been born from marketing strategies rather than actual health concerns. Around this time cookbooks began carrying numerous recipes for quick custards, citing arrowroot and tapioca as the health ingredients.
By the 1930s these recipes became obsolete as companies made instant custard mixes available to Americans.
Flan, The Sweeter Cousin
According to Maquelonne Toussaint-Samat’s “History of Food,” Arabs are noted for inventing caramel. When they traveled and then settled in Spain, their caramel came with them.
Flan was born when caramel, one of the dishes most important ingredients in my opinion, was introduced to the custard dishes already being perfected in the region.
In France, flan is known as crème caramel.
And to complete this exploration into the history of flan and the custards that predate it, here’s an Interesting fact:
In 18th century Mexico City, monastery cook Friar Geronimo de San Pelayo wrote down a recipe that included caramelizing the sugar for the flan on a wooden paddle that was set on fire.
“A History of the Elegant Flan.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
“FAQs: puddings, custards & creams.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
“Flan.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
“Flavorful flan: Making Mexico’s classic dessert.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
Jennings, Lisa. “Flan gone wild.” Nation’s Restaurant News; Feb 6, 2006; 40, 6; Alumni-Research Library. pg. 27.
“Recipe for ‘custarde’.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.