It’s an intense situation that anyone who gets excited about food has been through: you’re out at a nice-ish restaurant for the first time, you’re waffling between two or three dishes, and you just can’t make up your mind. You can’t even fully participate in the conversation until you get your order figured out. You might as well be playing on your phone for how much attention you’re paying to your dinner companions. You want to try everything! It all sounds so good! And you know you’re not going to be making it back to the restaurant any time soon. What if you choose the wrong thing?? Oh, the agony!
Thank goodness for having friends and family who are just as happy as I am about going halfsies and sharing dishes so we can try more than one. There’s that moment when we finally decide what we’re going to get, and we high-five each other like our team just scored the winning point. (What, other people don’t do this to celebrate their awesome restaurant ordering skills?)
Luckily for me, my husband and I frequently have the same tastes, with a few exceptions. For instance, he’s not a big dessert fan, and he doesn’t like chocolate. On one hand, this (ahem, weird and inexplicable) aversion means that I don’t have to share anything chocolate with him. When I order that fudge tartlet at the end of the meal, it’s all mine. On the other hand, this means that I don’t get to share anything chocolate with him… That batch of homemade cookies…it’s all mine. Every last one of them. I will end up eating every single cookie that doesn’t get given to friends or taken to work, because my husband will not touch them except to ask me to set aside some of the dough for him before I add the chocolate chips to it.
So, this throws a bit of a wrench in baking at home, especially during Snowzilla when you’re stuck inside and not pawning off your extra cupcakes and brownies on unsuspecting friends and coworkers. As I was stocking up for the blizzard, I actually went about it with the intention of not baking anything and contenting myself instead with mugs of Smitten Kitchen’s hot chocolate (sometimes spiked with bourbon). That mindset lasted for about two days, and then I started second-guessing my strategy and figuring out what spouse-pleasing dessert I could make with what we had.
I settled on flan pâtissier, which is essentially a super-thick—as in, sliceable—custard cooked in a pie crust. (Not the same as Spanish-style flan.) I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit strange. In my (American) opinion, it’s not as sweet as most things you’d categorize as a dessert, but I noticed that many of the French reviewers of the recipe I followed commented that they had cut back on the sugar. The texture is unusual, too: it’s creamy, but imagine a cross between a pastry custard and a vanilla Jell-O jiggler. I remember trying flan pâtissier in France and not being blown away by it; in fact, this article by Ann Mah pretty much sums up my lackluster reaction to it. So why revisit it if I thought it was just okay? Well, first of all, it didn’t require trudging through 2 feet of snow to the nearest grocery store to pick up new provisions because it uses ingredients that are very basic: flour, butter, sugar, milk, eggs, vanilla, and cornstarch. Second of all, knowing what to expect is important, and I think I was imagining that it would be like a slice of crème brûlée when I first tried it. It’s not. It looks richer than it tastes. Don’t go into it thinking that it will be soft and spoonable like most custards or flans available in the USA, or you will be disappointed. It is also noticeably less sugary than anything that qualifies as a “pie” in the States. Know that you’re supposed to wind up with something pretty firm, and know that is mildly-flavored. Third, I really enjoy most dairy-based treats. Lastly, my husband will actually eat desserts like this. I searched some French cooking websites to find crust and filling recipes; the crust turned out great and didn’t get soggy even without blind baking, and the vanilla filling was smooth and creamy. If I had chosen this flan pâtissier in a bakery (and probably suggested going halfsies on an almond croissant too), there would would been some high-fives after ordering.
Note: This was my first attempt making flan pâtissier, and there are a few things I’d consider changing the next time around, like trying a parchment-lined 9″ cake pan instead of a springform pan. (The recipe didn’t specify what size pan was needed.) I don’t usually cook with vanilla beans—we happened to have one that was probably 3 years past its prime—so I would also be interested to see how it would turn out without the vanilla bean, and rely instead on adding the vanilla extract and a tablespoon of rum (suggested in many comments) after the custard thickened. I might also pass the thickened filling through a sieve before baking it. The pâté brisée recipe comes from Meilleur Du Chef (which I just realized has an English version, although it’s still in metric), and the flan pâtissier was adapted (barely) from the recipe submitted by Eryn Folle Cuisine on Le Journal Des Femmes.
says it serves 8, but I think it serves more like 12
- 1 pie crust—most flan pâtissier recipes call for a store-bought or home-made puff pastry or pie crust; I used the pâté brisée recipe below
- 1 quart (4 c.) 2% milk, divided
- 3 eggs
- 3/4 c. sugar
- pinch of salt
- 3/4 c. cornstarch (yes, you read that right)
- 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
- 1 vanilla bean, split open and scraped
- Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter and flour a 9 1/2″ springform pan. Roll out the chilled pie crust into a 14″ circle and mold in into the pan, going about 2″ up the sides. Prick the bottom and sides with a fork, and let chill in the fridge while you prep the filling.
- In a large bowl, beat 1/2 cup of the milk with the eggs, sugar, salt, cornstarch, and vanilla extract.
- In a saucepan, heat the remaining 3 1/2 cups milk and the scrapings from the vanilla bean over medium heat. When the milk just starts to simmer, remove the pan from the heat but don’t turn off the burner.
- Very, very slowly add the hot milk to the egg mixture: beat the egg mixture constantly and add a few drops of hot milk at a time until you’ve incorporated about a cup of it, then add the rest in a slow stream, continuing to beat constantly.
- Return the mixture to the pan and heat over medium, whisking constantly until thickened.
- Pour the filling into the crust (no need to blind bake the crust), and cook for about 40 minutes. Turn the heat up to broil, and broil for 1-3 minutes to color the top. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn!
- Let cool for a bit at room temperature, then place in the fridge and let chill completely before removing from pan and slicing.
Pâté Brisée, or what I would just call Pie Crust, or what the British apparently call Shortcrust Pastry
makes 1 generous single-crust pie shell
- 2 c. all-purpose flour
- 9 Tbsp. butter, cut into chunks and at room temperature (cut first, then leave on the counter to soften)
- 1/4 tsp. table salt
- 1 egg yolk
- cold water, about 4 Tbsp.
- Mound the flour in a bowl. Sprinkle the butter chunks and salt on top. Rub with your fingertips until it resembles coarse meal. (It’s less sticky if you make sure the butter chunks are coated with flour before you start rubbing.)
- Mound the butter/flour mixture into a little mountain shape again. Put the egg yolk in the center, and—working from the middle of the bowl to the edge—use your fingertips to gradually start incorporating the yolk into the flour/butter mixture. Add water, 1/2 Tbsp. at a time, to help the dough come together. (I added about 3 Tbsp. total.) Avoid working the dough too much. Once you can gather it into a ball, flatten it into disk, cover with plastic wrap, and let chill for at least 30 minutes.