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Cinco de Mayo: battle of the flans

May 5, 2010

[This time, a Town Crier assignment gave me the chance to investigate the foods of Cinco de Mayo–and I steered towards history. The piece runs today in the Food & Wine section.]

The Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 has become, particularly in Puebla and the United States, an occasion for vibrant Cinco de Mayo parties, bursting with song, dance, flavorful foods, and the bold color of spring flowers.

Often, at the center of all this joyful commotion, amidst the chilaquiles, guacamole and agua frescas, a cool flan luxuriates under its cape of golden caramel. Flan is a plain dessert, more understated than très leches cake, but still rich, like buttery, powdered-sugar-dusted Mexican tea cakes. It’s a staple in Spanish-speaking countries. But if the Mexican militia hadn’t outdone Napoleon III’s army in Puebla in 1862, we might be eating a different kind of flan in America today.

Though they share the same word origins, the flans of France and Mexico place them in different culinary as well as military camps.

The word goes back to the Old French flaon, which comes in turn from Latin, and essentially designates a custard. Custards of eggs and milk, often sweetened with honey, were familiar to the Greeks; and the Romans cooked them in shallow open dishes called patinas. In Spain and Portugal—and, through culinary and cultural influence, in most Spanish-speaking countries—flan has remained just such a custard.

Rich with eggs and cream, lightly flavored with vanilla, and sweetened with sugar or thick syrupy ribbons of sweetened condensed milk, flan is firm, smooth, and silky. Making flan begins with the delicate task of swirling sugar in a saucepan until it turns amber, and then coating a dish with this caramel before pouring in the eggs and milk to bake. Once the flan has cooled and carefully been inverted onto a plate, the caramel drips tantalizingly down its flanks.

In France, this dessert has another name: crème caramel. “Flan” means something slightly different. French flan patissier is essentially a custard tart in a thin puff pastry crust. With fewer eggs, a lighter milk base (often thickened with a bit of cornstarch), its texture is more like panna cotta, not as rich and silky as crème caramel (Mexican flan). The most common variation has deep red cherries embedded in the custard, their pink juice forming rosy aureoles around them. Bakers sell their flan tart in hefty slices, and it’s a classic after-school treat for children. But it’s not what we’re serving on Cinco de Mayo.

Like the meaning of “flan,” the Battle of Puebla’s outcome was ultimately less straightforward than one might expect. General Zaragoza’s victory over the French only held off the Europeans for a year; it wasn’t long before they returned to capture Mexico City and set up their own Archduke Maximilian of Austria, a favorite of Napoleon III.

But, as a food, flan is beautifully simple.

*     *     *     *

Classic Mexican Flan (adapted from Bon Appetit, May 1992)

1 cup sugar

1 Tblsp. water

3 eggs

2 egg yolks

3 cups milk (or half milk, half cream)

¾ cup sugar

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the sugar and water until it forms an amber liquid (caramel). Evenly coat the bottom of a 9” round baking dish or 6 individual ramekins with the caramel, and set aside.

Beat the eggs, egg yolks, milk, sugar and vanilla together, and pour into the baking dish or ramekins.

Bake 40-50 minutes, or until center is gentle set (only slightly wobbly when giggled). Cool completely, then refrigerate. To serve, loosen flan from sides of dish and invert carefully onto a plate.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2010 6:58 am

    OMG!!! This looks SO good. I LOVE flan, but I’m alone in my household.

  2. May 14, 2010 2:19 pm

    do you know anything about the history of milk?

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