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When people inquire about recipes from the pastries on offer in Paris pastry shops, I look at the recipes we used when I went to pastry school at Ecole Lênotre and it’s hard to imagine cutting down a recipe that makes a hundred canelés into a recipe that makes six or eight for a home cook, who likely doesn’t want to go out and buy a hundred copper canelé molds at 35 dollars (or even €10-15) a pop. Professional bakeries don’t make a single gâteau Opéra or eight éclairs; it’s might be a dozen cakes, five or six dozen éclairs, and hundreds of caramels. So paring down a recipe that won’t overwhelm the oven, kitchen…or budget…of a home baker can be a challenge

Professional bakeries also make components separately as part of their schedule, and in large quantities, and will start the puff pastry or make the pastry cream for a cake or tart in advance, then assemble them over the course of several days. Often recipes depend on techniques learned over a period of time, such as macaronage, the proper stirring and folding of macaron batter, and aren’t just a list of ingredients. So as wonderful and generous as bakers tend to be, not all professionals can share (or in some cases, are willing to part with) the secrets of their success.

So I was deeply impressed when I saw an advance copy of French Pastries Made Simple: Foolproof Recipes for Éclairs, Tarts, Macarons and More by Molly Wilkinson, who learned her craft at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and now spends her time doing workshops and teaching classes in Versailles, where she lives. Molly did the admirable job of paring the most popular French pastry recipes down for home cooks, in a simplified fashion that anyone can understand, even if you have no professional experience whatsoever. What’s especially appealing about Molly’s book is that the recipes live up to the title, presenting simplified ways to make French pastries.

The pâte sucrée recipe, for example, is a French tart dough that she calls “the only tart dough you’ll ever need,” and is just one of the foundational benchmark recipes in the book. She then goes on to talk about other techniques of French pastry in chapters that include detailed instructions on how to master chocolate ganache, pâte à choux, génoise, puff pastry, caramel, and meringues, and provides a selection of classic French that use them, everything from a luscious tarte au citron (lemon tart) to Opéra cake, crème caramel, and charlotte aux fraise, a strawberry cake with homemade ladyfingers and a creamy strawberry mousse filling crowned with fresh strawberries on top. Molly’s explanations and friendly, yet precise instructions, remove any intimidation that one might have about tackling them.

Most of us think of Flan as a Mexican- or Spanish-style flan; an eggy custard baked in a caramel-lined mold that’s reversed onto a plate. In France, that’s known as crème renversée or crème caramel. Flan, or Far in the Breton language, refers to an open-face custard tart.*

Flan Parisien or Flan Pâtissier, such as this one, is often baked in a buttery crust. There are a lot of variations on the name and the way it’s baked so I just go into a bakery and order it by whatever name they decide to give it. (Rule #1: Avoid arguing with people serving you food.) But sometimes it doesn’t have a crust; Christophe Michelak’s Flan pâtissier is baked in a buttered baking dish, which you’re welcome to do, although the crust certainly makes the dessert more dramatic.

In France, vanilla is a flavor and isn’t automatically added to pastries and desserts, as it is in the States. Nature signifies that something is plain (such as Flan nature), although most versions contain vanilla even if it’s not mentioned. Vanilla extract (the kind with alcohol in it) isn’t used as much in France as vanilla beans are, but I usually add a dash of vanilla extract to desserts even if using vanilla beans as it enhances their flavor. And honestly, I’ve heard my fair share of complaints in life, but have not (yet) heard any about something having too much vanilla in it.

Flan Parisien is frequently enjoyed as a goûter or afternoon snack. (Yes, French people snack!) It’s big and bold, and sturdy, so will keep for a few days. We like it for dessert after dinner cut into thinner slabs than the local bakeries cut it into, but you can dive into it any way you want.

Vanilla Parisian Flan

Adapted from French Pastries Made Simple: Foolproof Recipes for Éclairs, Tarts, Macarons and More by Molly Wilkinson
Vanilla beans can be very expensive but do make this dessert taste extra-special. You can use one or two, and I add some vanilla extract as well, although Romain suggested it would be good with a little rum in the batter instead. If you're one of those people who buries their used vanilla beans in sugar to make vanilla sugar, this is a good place to use that wonderfully-scented sugar!
Note that this dessert should be made the day before serving to give it time to cool and chill thoroughly, which will make it easier to slice, too.
Course Dessert
Cuisine French
Servings 10 servings

For the crust

  • 1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon flour (210g) flour
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces, 100g) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons water, plus more if necessary

For the custard

  • 3 cups (750ml) whole milk
  • 1 3/4 cups (430ml) heavy cream
  • 1-2 whole vanilla beans, (see headnote)
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1 1/4 cups (250g) sugar
  • 3/4 cup (90g) cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • To make the crust, mix the flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (You can also make it in a large bowl with a pastry blender or your hands.) Add the cubes of cold butter and mix on medium speed until the pieces of butter are the size of large corn kernels. Add the egg and water and mix until the dough begins to come together.
    At this point, even if I'm using my stand mixer, I use my hands to gather and shape the dough into a disk. If necessary, add another teaspoon of water if the dough resists coming together but don't overwork it. Wrap the dough in plastic or your favorite eco-friendly alternative and chill for at least 30 minutes.
  • On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 15-inch (38cm) circle. Carefully place the dough into a 9-inch (23cm) springform pan so it covers the bottom and goes up the sides of the pan. Use your fingers to gently coax the dough into the corners of the pan (between the bottom and edges) then trim any dough overhanging over the top edges of the pan. Use your hands to patch and smooth any wrinkles or cracks. (The dough is quite forgiving once baked and filled so don't worry if it's not perfect.) Place the dough-lined cake pan in the freezer while you make the filling.
  • Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC).
  • Pour the milk and cream into a large, heavy-duty saucepan (or Dutch oven). Split the vanilla bean(s) vertically and scrape the seeds into the milk mixture and also add the vanilla pods and the salt. Warm over medium heat.
  • In a separate medium-size bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, and sugar, then whisk in the cornstarch.
  • When the milk mixture is very warm, working quickly, pour half of the warm milk mixture over the eggs and quickly, and confidently, whisk well until combined. If you have someone in the kitchen to help you, this is a place to ask them to. But if you do this step without hesitation, you should be fine. (If you're unsure, you could ladle in the hot milk while whisking constantly.)
  • Pour the warmed egg mixture back into the pan of warm milk and stir it leisurely with the whisk until it starts to thicken, which'll take about 5 minutes, but will depend on the heat. As it starts to thicken, things will move a bit more quickly and you'll want to whisk more vigorously to break up any lumps as it cooks. When the mixture comes to a full boil - a large bubble or two will break the surface - turn off the heat and pluck out the vanilla beans with tongs. Stir in the vanilla extract.
  • Remove the tart shell from the freezer, scrape the pastry cream into the tart shell, smooth the top and place it in the oven. Bake the flan for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350ºF (180ºC) and bake for another 50 minutes. The top may get close to black, which is normal and fine.
  • Let the flan cool on a wire rack. Once cool, chill in the refrigerator overnight before serving.

Notes

Storage: The tart dough can be made up to two days in advance and chilled. If made in advance, you may need to remove it from the refrigerator for a bit before rolling. The finished flan will keep 3-4 days in the refrigerator.

*A French reader wrote to me that the name Flan is a take on Flaouna or Flaó, two cheese-filled pastries from Mediterranean regions.

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52 comments

    • Hafida

    Dear David, I always enjoy reading your articles and especially your point of view, as an american, on the French pastries and way of living. I realise that things that seem obvious to me are not to everyone and find it interesting to have “a foreigner’s view”.
    Just in case you are interested in preparing canneles in small quantities: I used the Tefal silicone mould and the result is not too bad. I know traditionally copper mould are prefered but it works also with these (in my hands and using this recipe: https://www.femmeactuelle.fr/cuisine/recettes/dessert/canneles-04346).
    Best wishes for the festive season.

    • Janet C

    I bought Molly’s book the minute it came out and haven’t made anything in it…you’ve inspired me to do so. Right now I’m busy with Baking with Dorie. And, it is so cold here in New England today I’ll be making hot chocolate from Drinking French!
    I love your emails, David!

    • Carol Gillott

    That’s a great tip – adding vanilla extract to enhance real bean flavor! France really put vanilla on the flavor map for me. There are so many varieties, regions and forms available here. No more “plain vanilla”. Its since become my ice cream flavor of choice.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, there is a proliferation of great vanilla pastries in France although I bring vanilla extract back from the U.S. as the bottles of vanilla “aroma” (or the little packets of vanilla-flavored sugar) you can buy doesn’t lend quite the same flavor. Food science writer Harold McGee once told me that alcohol, even in minute quantities, changes the way we taste things and I think the alcohol in American vanilla extract naturally boosts the vanilla flavor of the beans when used together – a great combo!

      • Kim Smith, SLC UT

      As a kid in the 60s in the US state of Georgia, I loved the vanilla our pharmacist made and sold in 12 ounce cough syrup bottles. (Once I packed a bottle to fly back to my university and it broke in the plane’s baggage compartment and filled the ventilation system with its great aroma.) His vanilla operation was shut down by the state government because it was discovered he used Tonka beans to enhance the flavor, which are illegal in the US. I think you, David, have said the French love Tonka. Please elaborate.

    • marcella

    thank you, thank you, thank you David for this recipe! I had been waiting for it since your Tapisserie post :)
    None of my friends and relatives understand my obsession with this dessert, so I’m off to bake one all to myself.

    • Becky R.

    David, how different is this from a custard pie, like chess? And I agree with Molly, since I discovered pate sucree, it is the only crust I use for tarts and pies. It is very easy to make and handle, sturdy, and delicious! I will have to try this recipe, and thanks so much for sharing it.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      This is made with pastry cream and I’ve only made Lemon Chess pie, not a standard one but you could put the recipes side-by-side and check out any differences (and similarities!)

        • Karen

        Hi David, thank you for sharing this and I’m excited to make it. I’m planning on making it ahead of time for a Christmas party, but scared that the crust will become soggy if I leave it in the fridge for more than 2 days. Will it get soggy if I use this pate Sucre recipe or a store bought frozen puff pastry like Dorie uses?

        Thanks and love your articles as always!

          • mickey

          We’ve just finished the last piece on day 5, no soggy bottom!
          I made it as per David’s recipe and loved that the vanilla flavor intensified a little by keeping it longer.
          Works fantastic when you want to bake ahead!

    • Lulu (Louise)

    Hi David, love your posts as I am British/Irish living in SW France! Follow you keenly after making one of your recipes to take to a French tennis tournament and a French lady went to get a piece of mine after my husband told her I (Lulu) had made it, she took a bite and swiftly went back to get another piece before it all went! French praise no Less! I digress, your pie crust is a very similar recipe to the great Queen of Baking, Mary Berry no less and I am about to embark on making Mince Pies with it after getting a jar of mince meat in our major local supermarket! Yum! Not sure how our French neighbours from across the field will respond but they love my cakes etc and have even requested my banana cake during the first lockdown . Keep writing as I so live a lot of your stories on a regular basis down here on a weekend at our market! Stay warm & safe to you both

    • Peggy Fallon

    Molly is not only a very talented pastry chef, but an absolutely delightful person, as well. Her recipes are flawless. Thank you for spreading the word!

    • Ellyn

    Looks like heaven on a plate. Been looking for a good recipe for this for a while & hoping you’d post one. Thank you, David!

    • PAUL EGGERMANN

    David, Thanks for this one. I have been making Far’s since you posted that recipe a while back. I use sour cherries instead of prunes and everyone loves it. I have been making flan in the Mexican style for many years and will try your Parisian version next.

    • Beverly Held

    If I have guests, I will give this recipe a try. But even 10 servings looks dangerous to me! Until then, I am going to just walk over to rue Rosier and get one portion of Fabulous Flan at Yann Couvreur whose Flan is simply the best in the world, IMHO. And I’ve tried many different flans all over the world.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      If you’re in the neighborhood give the one at Maison Aleph a try. Theirs has a lightly caramelized phyllo pastry crust, and it’s very good.

        • Maureen

        I plan to try this recipe….but now you have me wondering…would caramelized phyllo make it similar to Pasteis de Nata?….because that sounds wonderful too!!

    • Beverly O Held

    Thanks for the suggestion. David

    • Anne Pearson

    Hi David – this looks delicious! I have a question about your Buche de Noel from My Paris Kitchen, which I am planning on making this week. The recipe says to make an orange syrup, but then I do see anything in the recipe about what to do with it after you make it – would you mind clarifying if you have time? Love your books; Drinking French helped get my husband and I through the early parts of the pandemic!

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      Hi Anne: It gets brushed on the cake layer before it’s rolled up. That was omitted in the first printing of the book due to an editing error but has been fixed. (More here.) Enjoy the cake! And glad you’re enjoying Drinking French too : )

        • Anne Pearson

        Thanks so much David! Happiest of holidays to you and Romain – I am going to curl up with L’appart after Christmas – can’t believe I haven’t read that yet, since I’ve enjoyed all of your other books so much!

    • Kevin

    Hi David,
    I am looking forward to trying this. How far up the sides of the pan should the pastry go?
    Thank you in advance!

      • Robert

      Look at the photo.

    • Susan Hill

    Recently when I was sick, a friend brought me home made custard. It was the best thing I had eaten in ages! This makes me think of that custard and that I need to make some for myself. I love your writing. Thank you for bringing Paris and France to us though food.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      Custard is definitely one of those things that makes you feel better (at least in my book…) I remember we had something called Junket growing up which was warm and milky. Perhaps it’s because when you’re not feeling well and don’t have a big appetite, custard is nourishing and easy to consume? Glad you’re feeling better!

    • Philippe Jeanjean

    This is great! I miss so much those Parisian Flans. and I am with you: I too hate that new trend of just selling the filling with no crust… Anyway, I have a question: Step 6 of the recipe, the one requiring a 3rd hand :-) . Would it work to use a Kitchen Aid stand mixer to start the whisking slowly at first then speed it up to add the warm milk. Or is that operation too delicate that it really needs to be done by hand? Thanks!

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      I actually did it the way it’s written; by just pouring it in quickly and whisking, which worked fine, although I often ladle it in with one hand and whisk with the other, when making a custard. I suppose you could use a stand mixer but it’s another thing to wash. If you do try it, let us know how it works out!

    • Nom de plume

    This is a marvelous post for noel! Thank you David, there is something about its simplicity in these complicated times that is heavenly!
    Happy holidays dear writer and readers!

    • Beate

    When I saw the first pic of your post I spontaneously thought: this is the good old German „Quarkkuchen“. It actually looks the same but it doesn’t seem to be the same. In the German recipe the main component in the custard is „Quark“ which is something like white cheese. Anyway- merry Christmas to you!
    Beate

    • PeterL

    As soon as I read your rave review of Molly’s book I bought a copy. Thank you. And, best wishes to you and Romain for the holidays. Question: just before we left Paris last month I bought a small jar of salted pistachio praline Pâte à Tartiner. What would be a really good way to use this? Thanks!

      • Patti

      I’ve been wishing for un flan Parisien since you first showed a photo. Thanks for the early X-mas gift,!

    • Sean

    Hello,
    I’d like to sub out the whole milk with goat milk, but do you think I can sub the cream with coconut cream? My SO can’t have cow’s milk.

    Thank You!

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve not tried it but think it would work. There is also soy “cream” as well. Note that some people make pastry cream with just whole milk, as I usually do, so you might want to give that a try – if you do, let us know how it works out!

    • Mickey

    First attempt is in the oven as we speak! Two questions came up while making this:
    1) to butter the springform or not?
    2) convection or fan assisted oven?

    Thanks!
    Can’t wait fir tomorrow…

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      The pan is unbuttered and I used a standard oven, not convection. Let us know how the one you made yesterday turned out!

        • Mickey

        thanks David! It came out very beautiful and everybody loved it. I think next time I’ll let the pastry cream boil for a minute longer, and maybe sift the cornflour before mixing in – I felt a slight grain…but I am very critical of my own baking.
        I would say a great first attempt!
        My vanilla extract is rum based and that worked really well…!

          • David
          David Lebovitz

          Thanks for letting us know. Cornstarch doesn’t generally have the floury taste of flour but next time you make it just be careful not to overcook it on the stovetop if you want to cook it longer and cooking things with cornstarch too long can cause them to return to being too liquidy.

            • mickey

            Thanks for the warning!
            On day two it was even more delicious as the vanilla flavor seemed a little stronger. This one goes in my reportoire.
            And thank you, David, your personal ‘coaching’ is very much appreciated!
            Merry Christmas

    • Hayley

    This reminds me of custard tarts from back home in Yorkshire. Every Thursday we would visit my Nan and she would buy me a small custard tart from the local bakers. As I recall the difference was they had nutmeg on top.

    • Cooking in Mexico

    David, I want to thank you for your Chocolate Biscotti recipe of 2009. It goes into my husband’s Christmas stocking every year, and every year, he is just as pleased to find it as he was the first time.
    Thank you for all your recipes all the year through.
    Feliz Navidad!

    Kathleen

    • Julie Conason

    This is lovely. While I’m a bit of a chocolate fanatic, I always find vanilla custard sublime, whether it’s crème anglaise or crème pâtissière or baked custard. I will absolutely try this at a time when it’s just for me, since others at the holiday table are not custard lovers.

    I’m making your bombe glacée as described in your cranberry sorbet recipe, except that I’m making a fresh tangerine sorbet and a good vanilla ice-cream (maybe spiked with cognac?) in addition to the cranberry sorbet. So as not to get too much orange in there, I was thinking of using pomegranate juice instead of orange in the cranberry sorbet, and maybe spiking it with eau de vie de framboise instead of Grand Marnier so as to play up the contrast with the tangerine sorbet. If you have time, I’d love to hear what you think about those ideas.

    • evelyn

    Hi David,

    Do you recommend blind baking the crust? What about chilling the pastry cream before pouring it in the shell?

    Thanks a bunch!

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      It worked well as written so I wouldn’t recommend making any changes. Chilling the filling will affect the baking time and prebaking the crust isn’t necessary.

    • Barbara Harrington

    BON ANNIVERSAIRE!

    • Gavrielle

    Most of us think of Flan as a Mexican- or Spanish-style flan; an eggy custard baked in a caramel-lined mold that’s reversed onto a plate.

    I think that would probably be more accurately “most of us Americans” as in my experience people more used to the British/Commonwealth baking tradition would, like the French, think of that as a creme caramel. The word flan is very common in the British tradition but has a very general meaning of a savoury or sweet filling baked in an open-topped pastry case. I’ve even seen Delia Smith refer to a tarte Tatin as a flan!

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      I found that over the years, I starting using more conditional words and language like “almost everybody…” “people in certain places…” and “some might say…” to cover all the possible bases (it’s hard to avoid generalizations but it’s also hard to make sure I’ve covered everything in every post), but sometimes I miss one or two, so my apologies.

    • Chris

    Made this tonight, it was absolutely delicious. Even if I mistakenly ‘separated’ one of the eggs, adding an extra whole egg to the mix instead of just the yolk! It came out a little more wobbly, but still went down a treat.

    Thanks!

    • Abbie

    I am not a good baker, and I didn’t have all the right ingredients (had no vanilla beans, subbed 2% milk for the whole and some of the heavy cream) and yet this still was delicious. Our family of four enjoyed it for three desserts over the holidays- first time plain, second with apples sautéed in caramel sauce, and tonight with raspberry sauce made from just heating up jam. The custard was smooth and creamy, and the crust was buttery. Thank you for this apparently very flexible recipe!!

    • Flavia

    I made this Flan Parisien over the holidays and it was a huge success. I served it with praliné (inspired by a similar pairing I tasted in a French restaurant in my town). We were a small party so I had leftovers that I kept in the fridge. It kept perfectly for several days.
    Great recipe!

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      Happy to hear you liked it!

A

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