Flan Week: Traditional Flan From Spain

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Flan de España Spain

{Photo Courtesy of Maria Amelia}

Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in our Flan Week celebration in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Today is the turn of  María Amelia,  creator of, and the community leader of and a blogger for de Todobebé.  María Amelia shares with us a story about traditional Spanish Flan. We hope you come back all week to check out so many different ways of making flan in Latin America and Spain!

Ah Spain. España de mi alma. I love it. It is in every fiber of my being, implanted there by my mother and my father. My mother, of course, was born and raised there. My father is American of Puerto Rican parents, but studied medicine there and fell in love with my mother… and with it. And so, as I mentioned in an earlier post on this site, my sister and I spent every summer in Spain, and the remaining three seasons waiting to return.

How did I ever make it through Fall, Winter and Spring? Well, one way was living vicariously through the letters I received from my family and friends in Madrid. A second was the occasional care package delivering much anticipated clothing and treats. The package would arrive wrapped in brown paper and tied with brown string, and a full quarter of it was covered in stamps. Unwrapping it revealed excellent quality clothing, a year ahead of la moda in the States. Pre-Christmas, however, it also contained the classic sweets of la epoca – turrón, mantecados, yemas and polvorones.

Naturally, food and music carried us through the rest of the months. Not a lot of Spanish food was imported into the United States in the 70s and 80s. Many Americans (mistakenly) still regarded Spain as not completely ¨modern¨ or what have you, and the reality of a fascist government followed by an evolving democracy made America´s doors open ever so sloooowly to Spain´s outstanding, artisanal quality of food people all over the United States enjoy today. So, my mother made due with what was available. She cooked us typical Spanish dishes, using ingredients purchased here or brought back with us from one of our trips. The taste was never exactly identical, but it was close enough. 

A few things translated well. Tortilla Española was one. Arroz con pollo was another. But there is no substitute for the marisco of the coasts of the Mediterraneo or Cantábrico, the cordero of Castilla or, of course, the jamón. For these we waited all year long and then enjoyed them with gusto. I love Spanish food, and if I were asked what my last meal would be it would be some typical plato Castellano.

Here´s the rub. For all of its centuries and centuries of tradition, Spain – traditionally – was not a power house of desserts. Now, before anyone gets offended, I am not saying that typical, traditional Spanish desserts are not works of art. They are. They are pure, wholesome works of the land from which they are produced. And today, with the advent of the modern Spanish chef who for the last few years have been turning the world of cuisine on its ear, Spain has made advances in desserts akin to that first step for mankind. However, culturally, traditionally it did not achieve the levels of complexity of its neighbors to the East or South. Spain´s traditional desserts were of the people, el pueblo, a lot of which was poor. And so the most typical of Spanish desserts incorporate basic ingredients elevated to the sublime. SUBLIME. And so you see, I am not showing a lack of respect to Spanish desserts, rather I am saying that what my ancestors did was take the ordinary and make it divine.

And herein comes el flan. Eggs, milk, sugar, lemon. Punto y se acabó. Its origins are ancient. There are variations of flan all over the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the world, but how could there not be? It is custard. Eggs, milk, sugar. These are three of the most basic ingredients of life. Add to this lemon as the precursor for the caramelo, and we´re done. Traditional flan – the flan of my mother´s generation, of the older generations – is just that. Add anything else to it and they will tell you it´s not flan. It´s ¨a flan¨ but it´s not ¨flan¨. This is not to say that these flans are wrong or bad, or that theirs is better. My parents, or uncles or aunts will still eat a variation on flan, enjoy it immensely and lick the spoon. But after they´re done, they´ll look you in the face and tell you it´s not ¨flan¨.

So what is flan to a traditionalist? Flan is part of the culture. Flan is what generations of Spaniards made with pride to celebrate special occasions. That much sugar was not to be used lightly, especially in times of poverty or war.  Flan is in the genes. Flan is respected. Flan is enjoyed.

My mother´s flan is a work of art. It is big, it is soft, it is delicate and it is all her love, her pride, her family tradition and her heritage, folded in milk, egg yolk and sugar and cooked under pressure in a baño maría. Each time she makes it, it consumes her. Everything else is cleared out of the way, the ingredients are taken out and the ancient dance begins. The look on her face reflects how seriously she is taking the preparation. The pot she uses, the flanero brought back with her from Madrid, is probably as old as I am if not part of her ajuar which would make it older, and it is as clean as the day it was bought. Making her flan is as much a dance as it is a battle against physics and chemistry to make these proteins, acids and carbohydrates defy their true natures and combine into the softest quivering mass of divine inspiration allowed to us here on earth. A flan is to desserts what Stravinsky´s ¨Sacre du Printemps¨ depicted for spring, or what Debussy´s ¨La Mer¨ was to the romantic idea of the ocean. It is an explosive conversion of the elements to produce a gentle result.

When she makes her flan, my mother experiences emotions and carnal memories of days past. Making flan exhausts her, not just because it is tricky but because the flood gates of time open and memories of moments punctuated by flan return – some happy, but more often bittersweet. Just as flan for me is represented in my mother, flan for her is represented in memories of her mother and of her childhood. And so that genetic connection of which I spoke at the beginning is sparked by this ancient custard.

Once the ingredients are combined, she gingerly lifts the flanero and places it in the olla de presión. There is the element of danger. And the moment of truth comes after removing the flanero and cooling the custard as this is when the delicate mass is inverted and the pot is pulled off. One wrong move, a sudden jolt, the wrong temperature, an uneven plate, or worse an undetected error in its preparation, and all that egg, sugar and milk are lost. My mother´s flan is no little individual flan. It stands proudly at several inches in height and feeds the family during Nochebuena, or Domingo de Resurrección or other special occasions.

Recently I had the good fortune of eating flan at a restaurant called “Jaleo” outside of Washington DC. It is one of Chef José Andrés´ restaurants. In case you haven´t heard of him, José Andrés is a very well respected and successful Spanish chef here in the States who has done a lot to educate Americans on food from Spain. My husband, daughters and I decided to celebrate my birthday there, and for dessert I ordered the ¨flan al estilo tradicional con espuma de crema catalana¨ or traditional style flan with crema catalana foam. It was excellent and I enjoyed every spoonful.

So. Is traditional Spanish flan the best? No, but it is my favorite for what it means to me. Does it have its place in the culture of Spain? Yes, and for that we are proud and grateful. Are there other typical Spanish desserts? Yes, there are many from all over the different regions of Spain. And there are other custards as well. Crema catalana is one. My mother´s favorite dessert, in fact, is not flan. It is natillas which is another custard. Finally, can I give you my mother´s recipe for flan? No because if I do she will kill me.

Next time you decide to have flan, try a simple traditional one. Sit down and eat it slowly. Maybe you will experience a spark as well.

Maria Amelia is the mother of three beautiful girls and the wife of the world’s gentlest and most intelligent dentist. She is the daughter of a proud Madrileña and a Puerto Rican American father who dedicated his career to bringing life into the world. She is the creator of, and she is the community leader of and a blogger for de Todobebé. Maria Amelia loves her family and her heritage, and is pleased to be able to share her thoughts on all of it.

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