I want to tell you about flan. I have recently returned from France where I ate flan of such simplicity and elegance, such irresistible flavour and texture that I have barely been able to think about anything since (at least in a pudding context).
I can tell what you're thinking, 'Flan? Really? It doesn't sound like much'. I agree, flan is an inauspicious, bland name and one that gives little indication of how delicious a true French flan really is.
The second problem (after the name) is that flan also looks unremarkable. Its pale, wrinkled, slightly sunken, custard top, stained with messy, splotches of purple myrtilles will do nothing to persuade you, if you haven't already tried flan and been seduced by its simple charms, of its (many) hidden qualities. (You can have flan 'au natur', i.e. without the myrtilles, but who would miss out on an opportunity to add soft fruit?)
(For those of you who are wondering, myrtilles are native French blueberries. They are smaller than the blueberries we buy in England and grow wild in the Alps (and presumably Pyrenees) and have an intense, sweet blueberry flavour. If you want to make flan aux myrtilles, normal blueberries will work just as well as their French counterparts).
Given its name and appearance, I don't know what made me buy my first piece of flan. Maybe it was a cook's curiosity? Or maybe it was because during the course of my short stay in France I had tried everything else the local boulangerie had to offer. In any event, from my first mouthful, I was hooked and could barely walk past the window of the boulangerie without succumbing to a slice. As I was staying only minutes away and walked past the boulangerie several times a day, this meant that I ate a lot of flan. (Such was the intensity of my new found love for flan, that I often bought a piece at 7am when I went to buy bread for breakfast for fear that the boulangerie might sell out later in the day.)
Flan cast a spell over me.
It reminded me how much I love being in France, where it is entirely normal to go to the boulangerie every day. There was nothing grand about the boulangerie at the end of my road. It was the kind of boulangerie you find in every village, quartier and arrondissement in France. Packed with freshly baked croissant, pain au chocolat, brioche, tartes (aux framboises, noisettes, pommes, citron), and offering a selection of freshly baked bread so varied that it was impossible to choose each day whether to have pain de campagne, aux cereales, de seigle, aux noisettes, moisson, au levain, au lait, baguette tradition or baguette de refuge. I was in France over Easter. The boulangerie was open on Good Friday, Saturday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday because the French would not dream of not having fresh bread. I love that about France. The deep rooted belief in the boulangerie. Its unquestionable role in daily life. The French value having good bread - not just good bread, excellent bread - as much as I do (I have the Blackbird Bakery in East Dulwich to thank for mine and I cannot recommend their brown sourdough and buttermilk and currant highly enough).
Anyway, I have digressed (a common problem once on the subject of bread), I was telling you about flan. When I got home I determined to make flan. I found a recipe and have modified and tweaked it to try to imitate the flan that I am still thinking about even though I got back from holiday over three weeks ago. I cooked it for friends last Friday. The boulangerie had set the bar high and I was unsure how my flan would compare to the real thing. It went down well. Any residual doubts I had were swept away the following morning, when the leftovers were polished off for breakfast.
Here's my recipe. Play with it, experiment with different fruit, with spices infused in the milk (cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, star anise would all work well). Let me know what you think.
Flan aux myrtilles
350g pastry (puff or shortcrust)
1 vanilla pod, cut in half and seeds scraped out
100g golden caster sugar
150ml double cream
Blueberries or raspberries
Preheat the oven to 200C.
Heat the milk with the vanilla pod and seeds. Once it reaches boiling point, cover and let the vanilla infuse for 20 minutes. Remove the pod.
Roll out the pastry and line a well greased flan or quiche dish.
Whisk together the eggs and the sugar until pale. Add the flour and whisk until combined.
Continuing to whisk, add the warm milk gradually, then the cream.
Scatter the fruit (if using) over the pastry base. Pour the custard over the fruit and bake for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 160C and continue to bake for approximately 45 minutes until the custard has set. If the top of the flan starts to brown too much, cover it with silver foil.
Leave to cool completely before eating.
P.s. For those of you who have spotted the deliberate error, I failed to take any photos of my flan aux myrtilles and the photos above are therefore a flan aux framboises I made the following week.
P.p.s. told you I was obsessed with flan.