The name of one French dessert that people find confusing is crème caramel. Caramel-topped custards like this are called flan in Spanish, which confounds people who come to France and see a slice of flan in a bakery, that looks like (and is) a tart baked with a flour-stiffened custard, rather than the wobbly, caramel-topped custard that some of us are used to.
To confuse people further, the Breton term far is used for flan in French, such as in the case of Far Breton. So while the nomenclature of the other desserts, from here, there and everywhere, might be confusing in France – and in French, a crème caramel – also called crème renversée, is usually what they are called in French, not flan.
(People ask why learning a language is so hard. That little lesson right there was just for one single mound of custard on a plate.)
This was my first time baking a crème caramel, or crème renversée, in a loaf pan, which intrigued me, since I had never baked flan, I mean…crème caramel, in a rectangular pan before.
Another thing that intrigued me was the book that inspired the recipe, Les Routiers: Les meilleures recettes. A French friend enthusiastically recommended the book to me, so I picked up a copy. According to the book, there are over one thousand routiers (truck stops), in France, where one gets a “bon accueil, qualité irréprochable et prix en rapport” – “a nice welcome, irreproachable quality and good value for the price.”
The opening of the book also lauds the restaurants as offering cuisine maison, a fairly new signifier used in France to describe a restaurant that makes the food on the premises from fresh ingredients.
Flipping through the pages, I immediately saw why she recommended this book to me: It showed a side of France that’s seldom seen, or given much attention, unless you’re driving around the country and stop at a truck stop for a meal. But if you mention les routiers to a French person, many will smile with a bit of nostalgia as they probably stopped in one as a road trip as a child.
The truck drivers in France are known for liking good, hearty food, and there’s everything on the pages here. I was going to share Jambon persillé (below), long-cooked pork that’s jelled in a mold, but it called for one liter (~1qt) of wine and 2 liters of beef or chicken stock, and made two terrines, which, unless you were running a truck stop, might have a hard time finishing off. For those who like storage information, note there’s no information on how long something will keep or can it be frozen; this kind of food is meant to be served as soon as it’s ready, and in generous portions.
There were also Rognons de veau (veal kidneys), which I didn’t know if you’d like, to a Strawberry Bavarian made with boudoirs, which I had to ask someone what those were, since I always thought a boudoir was a woman’s salon or bedroom. They’re ladyfingers – another reason learning a language is so hard. And since I’ve made a few embarrassing blunder relating to restrooms and genitalia before around here, I decided to skip that as well.
So I landed on the Flan au caramel, which I was surprised to see called that since I’d never seen the caramel-topped custard referred to that way in Paris. I was worried I was going to have to delete everything I carefully explained earlier in the post, until I saw that the recipe was from a truck stop in the Southwest of France, close to Spain. Whew, that was close…
I’ve made a lot of crème caramels in my life and usually use milk as a base, which the recipe in the book used as well. It also had 200g (1 cup) of sugar, which seemed like a lot for a dessert that gets its sweetness from the liquid caramel which is baked on the bottom, and becomes the top once you turn it over. The recipe also called for caramel liquid, which is something you can buy in France. And then I looked at some of the recipes on that company’s website, and saw a recipe for Flan au caramel, too, and decided that maybe it was time to leave explaining French desserts to someone else ; )
In addition to my concern about the name of this dessert, I was concerned that it wouldn’t be cooked after 1 hour at 100ºC (212ºF), which was recommended by the recipe, which seemed low for such a dense custard, baked in a water bath.
So I made it a few times, including one version using sweetened condensed milk (below), since lait condensé is such a favorite in France that it’s sold in toothpaste-like tubes, often enjoyed by squeezing it directly into your mouth. It’s such a treat that they even sell “pocket” versions flavored with strawberry and vanilla, which you can carry around like Americans tote around chapstick.
The version made with condensed milk was hard to cut and quite sweet, even though I reduced the sugar, so I stuck to my maison version, using whole milk, fresh, free-range eggs, and a vanilla bean. When all was said and done, to give my brain a rest, I went at a café and saw Flan au caramel on the menu. So perhaps I’m thinking, or more like overthinking the name, and from now on, will just focus on the dessert itself – whatever you want to call it.