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A four-letter word


There, I said it: four little letters, a word that once furrowed my brow and spelled a long, sharp shiver down my spine. Most kids love to try a new four-letter word, but in this mouth, f-l-a-n was far too foul.

It was, as most important things are, a textural issue. For the better part of my childhood and adolescence, I lived by a simple mandate: nothing that jiggles shall cross the threshold of my jaw. Yogurt would be smooth and well stirred. Aspics, custards, and crèmes brûlée and caramel would be kept well out of sight. Jell-O would forever remain boxed and safe, in a powdery, potential state. There would be no squirting or squelching between the teeth; no skidding, slipping or sliding on the tongue. Such were the rules: hard and fast, and anti-flan.

But sometime around age seventeen, I was tricked, seduced, and brought under the sway of custard’s French cousin, the pot de crème. It hid in broad daylight on a dessert menu, three simple words conjuring up something cold and creamy, maybe—even ice-creamy, I imagined. I was young and pleasantly naïve, and I never saw it coming: this wolf in custard’s clothing, this sweet-faced thing promising a so-called pot of cream. When it arrived, I grimaced at its smooth, taut, shiny surface, but one vanilla bean-flecked bite later, I succumbed, licking the spoon and scraping the ramekin clean. For as hard and fast as I had set the rules, they fell with surprisingly little fanfare. I’d been confusing gelatin with a good, creamy custard—a terrible wrong that I’ve since worked hard to right.

I still like my yogurt stirred to smooth, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let a little jiggle get in the way of dessert—or dinner. Sweet custards and pots of cream are fine, but a recent foray into my collection of recipe clippings yielded something savory instead, and every bit as seductive: an asparagus flan.

Under most circumstances, I am strictly of the belief that fresh, springtime asparagus needs no embellishments—simple roasting is just right—but this case is an exception. Steamed to bright green and puréed to velvet, baked with milk, eggs, and little more, asparagus gets dressed up, but it somehow tastes simple, intense, even more like itself: clean, delicate, and verdant. It melts seamlessly into a light custard, morphing into a smooth, silky thing that slices under the knife like softened butter, all glide and no jiggle.

It goes down easy enough for a sweet shiver and a sigh, easy enough to step up—if only while the season lasts—as my favorite four-letter word.

Asparagus Flan
Inspired by Gourmet, May 2004

According to the original recipe, this Italian-inspired flan is to be served with a rich, creamy Fontina sauce. I found, however, that so much cheese quickly overshadowed the flavor of the asparagus—a near-perfect thing that, quite frankly, shouldn’t be messed with. I prefer this flan sans sauce, served as a light lunch with, say, a pile of roasted fennel and potatoes. If you can find decent Roma tomatoes—in season or not—and slow-roast them, they would also be a perfect, sweet-tart side. This flan would also be an elegant accompaniment to a festive springtime supper of roasted lamb or chicken, or a few slices of grilled flank steak.

2 pounds fresh asparagus
4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups whole milk
2 Tbs freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 ¼ tsp salt
A pinch or two of freshly ground black pepper
A pinch or two of freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and set a rack to the middle position. Butter an 8 x 2 round cake pan, line the bottom of the pan with wax paper, and butter the paper.

Prepare the equipment for the hot water bath. You will need a baking dish large enough to hold the cake pan and deep enough to safely hold at least an inch of water; I used a 10” by 15” Pyrex pan. Place a cooling rack or folded dish towel in the bottom of the baking dish; this will keep the cake pan from touching the hot pan underneath it and further protect the flan from direct heat. Fill a large pot with water, and bring it to a boil: this water will be used in the water bath.

Place a steamer basket in the bottom of a Dutch oven, and fill the pan with water to about ½” deep. Bring the water to a boil while you snap the woody ends from the asparagus and gently rinse the stalks. Place the asparagus in the steamer basket, and steam it, covered, until the stalks are bright green and very tender, about 6-8 minutes. Transfer half of the asparagus to the bowl of a food processor, and process to make a smooth purée. Scrape the purée into a large sieve set over a bowl, and then repeat with the remaining asparagus. Using a rubber spatula, press and stir the purée through the sieve into the bowl. This takes a bit of time, but it is well worth it: when you are finished, you will have a small, thick mass of woody bits and fibrous asparagus skins in the sieve, and about 1 ¾ to 2 cups of very smooth purée in the bowl. Discard the contents of the sieve, and set the purée aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs to break them up. Add the milk, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, whisking to blend. Add the asparagus purée, and whisk to thoroughly combine.

Pour the asparagus mixture into the prepared cake pan. Place the cake pan on top of the rack or towel in the larger pan. Gently slide the pans into the oven, and, taking care not to splash, pour the boiling water into the larger pan until it comes about halfway up the cake pan. Bake until the flan is set and beginning to pull away from the sides and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Transfer the cake pan to a rack to cool slightly, about 10-15 minutes.

Run a thin knife around the edge of the flan to loosen it. Invert a serving plate over the pan, and invert the pan onto the plate. Remove the pan, and discard the wax paper. Cut the flan into wedges, and serve.

Yield: 6-8 servings


Blogger Gourmetish said...

That looks like a great dish at a dinner party. Unusual yet appealing.

10:29 PM, March 14, 2006  
Blogger kickpleat said...

oh my goodness, this looks so green & lovely! i'm so not a lover of the jiggle food group, but i think i could give this a try!

11:58 PM, March 14, 2006  
Blogger Caroline said...

I'm not crazy about the texture of flan either, and I normally reserve the consumption of custardy concoctions for dessert...but...I love asparagus and am really intrigued by this!

6:35 AM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous Jessie said...

I think I shall hold back from anything that moves in a jell-o/pudding-like fashion. Sorry. :)

7:07 AM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Ooooh, a savory flan! I love it. I've just started to spot fresh asparagus at the market. This is the perfect recipe to begin easing out of winter; now if the weather would just cooperate...

1:00 PM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous Amy D said...

I too am anti-the custard/pudding texture.. but this looks amazing (and more cheese-cake consitency than custard?)
I am printing it out now to make for my asparagus-loving husband

1:09 PM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Gourmetish, this would be great dinner party fare. Absolutely.

Kickpleat, I know - I really loved the muted green color of this! And as for the jiggle food group, this really hardly qualifies. It has absolutely none of the gelatinousness that is sometimes found in flans. In fact, I gave it an honest-to-goodness jiggle test at lunch today, and it didn't budge. Think of it as the smoothest, silkiest, lightest quiche you can imagine - without the crust, of course.

Caroline, see my comments to kickpleat, above. Be not afraid of asparagus flan!

Jessie, I hope you'll reconsider. Remember, this thing doesn't so much jiggle as glide. See the description above, in my reply to kickpleat.

Jennifer, I know - I think I've already bought four bunches of asparagus, and it's only been in the market here for a couple of weeks! Here's hoping that your weather holds up its end of the bargain...

And Amy D, hello there! I hope that you do give the flan a go - it's just the thing for an asparagus lover. And as for the consistency, it isn't nearly as dense as a cheesecake, nor is it as rich as most custards. As I wrote to kickpleat (above), the closest thing I can think of is a very smooth, very delicate quiche filling. Let me know what you (and yours) think, my dear.

1:39 PM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous kymm said...

Oh my gosh, I've been mulling over what to serve my low-carbing parents when they visit this weekend. This is it! It's so springy and elegant. I was thinking of doing grilled salmon and this would go well with that - or the roast chicken suggestion sounds great too.


3:21 PM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This looks delicious. Do you have any advice for how to alter the cooking time or amounts for a 9-inch cake pan? Afraid I don't have an 8-inch.

4:17 PM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous bea at La Tartine Gourmande said...

This is such a nice post Molly. four letter flan, I love flan, savoury of sweet! Smooth, delicate, melting!

Now, did you know that in French supermarkets, at the dairy section, we have a flan/crème/petit pot section as HUGE as the American cereals section? That makes ME always so happy to go home!!! Even Danette I can have!!!

And now I am homesick.

5:21 PM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous gerald said...

Flan + Green = WEIRD! I'll have to try this sometime - finally I'll have an opporunity to use up those egg yolks I have in the freezer from all my attempts at making macarons.

9:22 PM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Kymm, this would be perfect with salmon. You hit the nail on the head! Best idea yet.

Anonymous, you can certainly make this in a 9-inch cake pan, although it will be thinner and will likely need a little less time to cook. Or you could experiment with baking several individual-size flans instead, using small ramekins or custard cups - ones that hold, say, 4 or 6 ounces each. In that case, you might want to serve the flan straight from the ramekin or cup and not bother with unmolding it. If you do go with small, individual-size molds, you'll want to watch them carefully, since they should take a bit less time to cook than one large one. I hope that helps...

And Bea, ahh, yes, I do remember the flan / yaourt / creme / petit pot section of my dear old Monoprix! My greatest indulgence was usually Mamie Nova yogurt - rhubarbe, s'il te plait! - but next time, I will branch out into flan in your honor. And speaking of Danette, for some reason, I have a very clear memory of a very cheesy ad for the stuff, featuring Yannick Noah, some kid, and a big pile of empty Danette containers...

And Gerald, flan + green = DELICIOUS! Really, I know it's pretty jarring to the eye - a little green-eggs-and-ham-ish, actually - but really, it's damn fine. As for your stockpile of egg yolks, though, do note that this recipe uses whole eggs, not just the yolks. Maybe you should make a zabaglione for dessert? Mmm.

9:36 PM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous gemma said...

This sounds amazing! I am a sucker for asparagus in any form, and combined with eggs and milk. . .what a dream! Thank you for the idea.

12:39 AM, March 16, 2006  
Anonymous kayenne said...

hmm... looks interesting. why not try cooking the flan by steaming, stove top over simmering water.

leche flan(caramel or milk flan), a local dessert with spanish origins, have always been cooked by steaming. if you keep the steaming water to just simmering and not touching the cake pan bottom, a very smooth flan comes out. just cover the cake pan with aluminum foil before steaming and don't touch for the first 20-25 minutes of cooking. should take about 30-45 minutes, depending on thickness and quantity.

1:38 AM, March 16, 2006  
Anonymous kayenne said...

btw, how about layering with a carrot or potato-leek flan?

1:40 AM, March 16, 2006  
Anonymous sher said...

Thank you!! I've always felt a little guilty about the fact that I don't like flan. And you're right--it's a textural thing. But, your flan looks fabulous. I'll make it--but I WON'T call it flan. :)

9:45 AM, March 16, 2006  
Blogger Elise said...

What a truly inspired idea! With those ingredients you couldn't possibly go wrong. Just in time for St. Pats too.

1:15 PM, March 16, 2006  
Anonymous e said...

oh my goodness, this looks amazing. in australia, asparagus season is over, but as soon as hey start popping out of my parent's vegie pathc next summer, i'm there! thank you!

7:03 PM, March 16, 2006  
Anonymous bea at La Tartine Gourmande said...

And Molly, I did not know you lived in la France!!! Where?? and When?

6:38 AM, March 17, 2006  
Blogger AnnieKNodes said...

Molly-you are always inspiring! The minute asparagus show up at our green market I'm going to attempt this.

1:22 PM, March 17, 2006  
Anonymous Tana said...

Wow, Molly, did you strike a chord or what with this recipe?

It looks fantastic.

And, with the exception of Jell-O, I love things that jiggle. (I shoulda worked at Hooters.)

: D

2:06 PM, March 17, 2006  
Anonymous keiko said...

Molly, I can almost taste this gorgeous dish... it's really beautiful. I'll definitely try the recipe when I can 'pick' some asparagus at local farms. Thanks so much for sharing.

9:42 AM, March 18, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Gemma, you're very welcome!

Kayenne, I would have never thought to steam this, but you're right - I'm sure it would yield an incredibly silky flan. And as for layering this flan with one made from another vegetable, it sounds absolutely lovely - and beautiful! I'm not sure how to execute it, though, without a) overbaking a layer or two, or b) having the layers seep into one another. Hmph! If anyone has a suggestion, I would be ever so grateful. And thank you, Kayenne, for two great ideas.

Sher, no need for guilt! As we all know, there are plenty of other desserts out there. If you don't like flan, fair enough! But if you don't like this asparagus version, I'd be pretty surprised...

Elise, how funny! You know, when I wrote this post, it didn't even occur to me that St. Patrick's Day was right around the corner! Oof! My subconscious must have been hard at work, lining things up without my knowing...

E, you're most certainly welcome!

Ah oui, Bea, I lived in Paris for about seven months in 1999-2000 - with a host family in the 15th, while I was in college - and then again for about ten months in 2001-2002, in a teensy studio in the 11th. During that second stay, I was working as an assistante de langue in a high school in Saint Cloud. And most recently, I was there for five weeks in the summer of 2004, doing research on l'assurance maladie for my Master's degree. J'aime bien Seattle, mais Paris me manque terriblement.

AnnieKNodes, I hope the asparagus hurries up!

Tana, you know, it may be too late to work at Hooter's, but you can always head on over there for a burger and a dose of good, all-American jiggling! Or you could head for the kitchen, of course.

Keiko, it's my pleasure. I can't imagine not sharing the foods that I enjoy, so thank you for reading.

1:30 PM, March 18, 2006  
Blogger Pille said...

Molly, this looks tasty - the green colour of your flan is really inviting! I used to have (and probably still do) a similar aversion to anything wobbly - but only if the wobbliness was achieved by gelatine. As your flan has none, it'd be perfectly fine. I can also eat cream based wobbly things now, but still absolutely no jell-o/jelly!

4:57 AM, March 19, 2006  
Anonymous e said...

QUESTION! i hope someone with a set of scales can help. in australia we are metric -- so what does the asparagus weigh in kilos or grams please?? thank you!!(and because asparagus are not in season here, and i really wnat to try this rcipe, i'm thinking of substituting broccoli!)

2:06 PM, March 19, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Pille, you're safe here! No gelatin, no Jell-O. Phew!

E, 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds, so for this recipe, the conversion is easy. You'll need about a kilo - or, if you want to get really precise, 900 grams - of vegetable, asparagus or otherwise. And please do let me know how your broccoli version turns out! It sounds like a very promising cool-weather substitute...

4:05 PM, March 19, 2006  
Blogger ilva said...

Your flan makes me so happy that asparagus time is closing in! But I think I'll try to make one right now even though it's cheating a bit!

10:54 PM, March 19, 2006  
Anonymous secretary said...

I probably won't be making flan anytime soon, but I did make that chickpea-tomato soup and it was awesome. I didn't have fresh rosemary on hand so I had to use some from my spice rack. I have a feeling I didn't put enough in. Nevertheless, that soup is awesome! I loved it. Especially with buttered wheat bread. Yum. You also inspired me to buy an immersion blender...great investment - so much less messy!!!!

7:23 AM, March 20, 2006  
Blogger jess (of Get Sconed!) said...

wow. thank you, iron chef!

11:17 PM, March 20, 2006  
Blogger Angela said...

I appreciate this recipie very much because I myself have a general aversion to all things gelatinous. BUT, this looks delicious and I will have to give it a shot. I just discovered your blog as well as a few other interestng food blogs. If you are interested and have a free minute, you should check [this] out! Happy blogging!

7:58 AM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Go ahead and cheat, Ilva! I'm happy to be your partner in crime.

Secretary, thanks for reminding me of that soup! It is pretty delicious, isn't it? It's been too long since I made a pot of the stuff myself. Time to get out the immersion blender, I do believe...

Jess, I'm not sure that Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and the rest of the Iron Chef gang would even let me into Kitchen Stadium, but wow, you're welcome!

Angela, thanks for the nudge. I hear good things about gather.com...

10:05 PM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger David said...


9:35 AM, March 22, 2006  
Anonymous kymm (at but my kids won't eat it) said...

Molly I went ahead and made the flan this weekend and served it with salmon. Blogged it here. It was a big hit even if I didn't notice that my pan was a bit crooked in its water bath and the flan came out slanted to one side. ;) Oh well, that made it look kind of post-modern once sliced with its slanting angles and strange but lovely green color.

Thanks so much for the recipe.

4:45 PM, March 22, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

Hi Molly,

I was just looking for a savory flan that would use some spring vegetable and yours looks amazing. I had a sweet corn flan in a restaurant once that was to die for. I am sure asparagus would be just as wonderful! Thanks for a great recipe.


6:11 PM, March 22, 2006  
Blogger Fiber said...

I have to admit flan is a texture thing for me as well. Too jiggly. But I love the idea of this. Maybe I'll have to give it a try.

3:41 AM, March 23, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

David, you're killing me.

Kim, you're very welcome! I'm so glad to hear that the flan was a success (slanted or no) - and for your "living la vida lo-carb" parents, to boot!

Helen, the pleasure is all mine. And that sweet corn flan sounds outstanding. Something to experiment with this summer, no doubt...

And Fiber, good luck!

1:09 PM, March 23, 2006  
Anonymous e said...

hello again! i made the broccoli version! i bought a kilo of brocolli and just caut the woddier stems off. i steamed and whizzed the broccoli n the food processor, but didn;t strain it thru a sieve. i used four of my parent's big rich duck eggs and i only had skinny soy milk in the fridge, but it was so rich and creamy and GREEN! delicious. i hope you can try this version!

7:30 PM, March 26, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

E, your broccoli version sounds absolutely luscious - and with duck eggs? Wonderful!

9:07 PM, March 27, 2006  
Anonymous Debbie said...

I made this flan last night and it was delicious. I have to confess that due to time constraints I didn't put the asparagus through a sieve, but I food-processed till it was very smooth and creamy and didn't detect any fibers or skins in the final flan. Thanks for the great recipe.

7:44 AM, March 29, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Debbie, it's my pleasure. And I'm delighted to know that your flan turned out smooth and creamy, even without the sieve bit. I'll file that away for future reference...

3:38 PM, April 06, 2006  
Blogger Sheffy said...

I will certainly try that with salmon. It looks absolutely delicious!

10:30 PM, May 30, 2008  

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