Tacos, tequila and one more dish should be an ingredient for a proper Cinco de Mayo feast. On menus from Highland Park's My Taco to downtown's Border Grill to Santa Monica's El Cholo to almost every Mexican or Spanish-accented eatery in between, under desserts (postres) there will be flan. The ubiquitous caramelized-sugar-topped custard is an authentic and traditional Mexican dessert. Along with tres leches and churros. "You'll find all three everywhere in Mexico," says Border Grill's's Susan Feniger.
Flan came to Mexico via the Spanish colonization, and to its other colonies as well. (No legit Cuban restaurant is without it.) Flan's culinary origins, however, go further back than the Spanish colonial era and date to Roman times. Originally made with eggs and milk, the slowly cooked dish was sweetened with honey. Savory versions were popular, too, according to food historians and the site FlanRecipe.org -- eel flan was an ancient Roman delicacy, as was peacock tongue, although that dish doesn't seem to have had the same staying power.
From Rome, the cooked-egg-and-milk dish spread to all edges of the empire. In Spain, it took on Moorish flavors -- almond and orange -- and from there to the New World.
Flan's relations include crème brulee and crème caramel, also made with eggs and cream. (L.A.'s to-die-for crème caramel is found at Bouchon Beverly Hills). At Jose Andres' Bazaar at the SLS, the Spanish flan recipe calls for half-and-half and heavy cream, in addition to egg and egg yolks. Mexico's variation, as Feniger points out, is sweetened with condensed milk, giving it a denser consistency. At the Border Grill, Feniger adds another twist. Instead of using the canned product, the restaurant makes its condensed milk in-house by cooking down nonfat milk with sugar and reducing the liquid by half.
"We end up with smooth, silky custard," Feniger says of the uncomplicated dish. However, there is a trick to cooking flan, because there is always a trick to simple recipes. The difference between good and great flan is in not overcooking it. The uncooked combination of eggs, milk and vanilla should be baked in a low-heat oven (300 degrees) in a casserole or individual ramekin (swirled with caramelized sugar) surrounded by water halfway up, so the eggs cook evenly. "Press the center gently; it should jiggle and be slightly liquid-y," to test done-ness, advises Feniger. The water bath insulates the custard mix and delicately cooks it. Ideally the flavor will be slightly sweet, with the milk and egg characteristics balanced nicely with the burnt sugar.
Rum, coconut, espresso, Kahlua or orange can be added in for flavor. Chefs tend to revise the basics: There's a chocolate flan cake at Silver Lake's Malo; one of a tasting-size dessert trio at La Sandia in Santa Monica, the caramel custard is topped with diced strawberries and pineapple; and at the Miami airport, look for it to go at La Carreta (if only LAX had its own Cuban cafeteria).
Feniger recommends pairing it with café de olla -- milk plus coffee from the pot, tarted up with Mexican brown sugar, cinnamon and anise. Sweet dessert wines work well, too: Pair with an ice wine, a tawny port or sweet sherry. Silky, not too sweet and smooth, with that browned-sugar top and bath, a perfect flan is a thing of beauty.
Susan Feniger's flan recipe from Mexican Cooking for Dummies is here. Flanrecipe.org has many more.
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