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To grasp its significance, a writer in Buenos Aires eats the national dessert every day for a month.
“I’M SORRY BUT this is not a flan,” Clara proclaims, glaring incredulously at our dessert and back at me and our friend Nico.
It is a warm summer night and we are lounging at a table on the sidewalk outside La Favorita, a popular cantina for the young crowd that circulates around the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo Soho. The sound of 1960s rock-and-roll hunk Sandro blares over the chaos of cars and a never-ending stream of passersby, but we are absorbed in our own universe and an unbroken procession of food and drink.
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Crispy crumbs left over from a plate of deep-fried Swiss-chard buñuelos and the clunking of ice at the bottom of a highball of vermouth and seltzer signal a changing of the guards. Our cups morph into glasses of pinot noir as bright as grenadine that we squeeze between a revolving door of pizza trays: Stracciatella with long threads of habanero honey; cherry tomatoes crinkled by the heat of a wood-burning oven atop a bright-orange corn sauce and swirls of pesto; and an “everything” sprinkled with dill, parmesan flakes, and toasted sesame seeds that I could smell before the pie left the kitchen.
This was a dinner for three like any other, but the flan had thrown a wrench in the gears.
“You’re right,” Nico says with wide eyes. “It tastes good but it’s definitely not a flan.” She loudly sets down her spoon and motions the server over to order a slice of cheesecake.
In Buenos Aires, flan is omnipresent: a staple on the dessert menu of every neighborhood restaurant that accompanies a cortado or the last drops of wine. Beneath the fluorescent glow of the dairy aisle, bright-yellow plastic snack packs promise the flavor of your abuela’s homemade version. Metal tins filled with a pool of caramel light up the display case of any serious pizzeria, waiting to be ceremoniously flipped onto a white plate and smothered with whipped cream and a thick spoonful of dulce de leche. It is so quotidian that I had never really paid attention to its subtleties.
The flan that sat in front of us had a uniform auburn tint, sat somewhere between a creamy panna cotta and a custardy crème brûlée, and it defiantly leaned into the dulce de leche it was made with rather than served alongside.
“In linguistics, there exists a relationship between an object and its meaning that is called an acoustic image,” Clara explains. “If I say the word ‘flan,’ we all create an image in our mind with certain characteristics. This flan breaks every single established convention.”
Clara then explains the principles. A good flan must have an eggy firmness that creates resistance against the first dip of the spoon, and a caramel that very delicately teases the border of bitter, burnt sugar. Air bubbles are a telltale sign of kitchen lethargy — overwhipped eggs that turn invasive on the palate. The eggs themselves should add more texture than flavor, but this, the table maintained, begins to enter the realm of the subjective.
Enter the collective cultural agreement that distinguishes an Argentine flan from its counterparts: It must be served with dulce de leche. An equally fierce minority, of which I am a member, argues it should be served with a dollop of whipped cream. For diplomacy’s sake, we can all accept a flan mixto plated with both.
In Buenos Aires, flan is omnipresent: a staple on the dessert menu of every neighborhood restaurant that accompanies a cortado or the last drops of wine.
Argentines are raucous conversationalists. Nothing is off-limits to passionate debate. Yet the heated reaction and crash course on Saussure’s semiotic theory took me by surprise. Clara was right. La Favorita’s flan didn’t check a single box. It was not a flan. Or was it? What makes a flan a flan? For months, I couldn’t shake the question off of my mind.
The history of flan in Argentina is hazy. The first book about national cuisine, “The Perfect Argentine Cook,” was published in 1888 sans flan.
“There were a lot of recipes similar to flan that were a part of the local canon like tocino al cielo,” explains historian and food scholar Carina Perticone. “Tocino is Spanish and calls for three egg yolks for every egg white, no milk, and cinnamon, and lemon zest.”
Although this was the first I was hearing of tocino al cielo, its liberal use of egg yolks mirrors a 1933 recipe for flan published in the seminal cookbook “El Libro de Doña Petrona,” a 500-page cooking encyclopedia that has broken more records than the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Its author, Petrona C. de Gandulfo, whose cookbook and television programs made her omnipresent in kitchens across the country, couldn’t tell me how the flan arrived in Argentina, but offered insight into the Argentine flan of today. Her recipe calls for six egg yolks for every egg white per liter and a half of milk.
Clara’s assertion proved correct: It’s all about the eggs. But I still wasn’t satisfied. So I did the only thing I could think to do: I typed the word “flan” into Google Maps, built a color-coded spreadsheet, and vowed to eat a flan every day for 30 days. The ground rules were simple. I had to request “flan mixto” if it was on the menu, avoid repeating the same neighborhood more than once, and try as wide a variety of restaurants as possible.
On the night of my inaugural flan, I packed my bag like the first day of school, put my dog Richard on his leash, and we headed out. It was a total disaster. After walking for more than an hour, the restaurant that Google clearly categorized with outdoor seating had a deserted sidewalk. I peeked my head inside and inquired about a pile of folded-up tables and chairs leaning against the wall. “It’s almost winter. No one wants to eat outside,” the owner told me flatly before slamming the door in my face. I checked my map and kept walking, only to run into an identical situation — twice.
After nearly three hours and 100 city blocks, I happily sat down at a grill, shared a milanesa and French fries with Richard, and eagerly ordered my first flan. It was hospital yellow and tasted like an omelet that had been forgotten on the stove. What have I gotten myself into? I wondered.
The following day, I returned alone to one of the restaurants that had denied me a table outside. Lo de Cholo sits on a nondescript corner in the densely populated neighborhood of Caballito. The owner, Susana Fernández, had shot me down with more tact: “Perdonáme, cariño,” she told me with a smile.
What makes a flan a flan? For months, I couldn’t shake the question off of my mind.
“I’m sorry we took so long,” Fernández remarked as she set my dessert in front of me. “We whip the cream to order.”
It was day two and I had already found the perfect flan: dandelion-colored with a distinctive top layer of caramel that spilled into a moat around the plate’s edge and teased vague notes of bitter, burnt sugar, and a firm outer crust that opened up to soft, custardy bites.
The next two weeks continued at the same rhythm. A good, sometimes exceptional flan often welcomed another that made my stomach curl: braggadocious 12-egg flans that were as delicate as satin, and homey flans that tasted like the cereal milk at the bottom of the bowl. Aspirational flans made with shredded coconut felt grainy, like an unexpected gust of wind on the beach. Wet flans sprayed sugary milk with each chew, and dry flans clumped like a frittata pulled from the back of the fridge.
“You’re doing it wrong,” my friend Evy says, pointing out the obvious. “Who eats a flan by themselves?”
She was right. I had set up a Groundhog Day–style experiment and my original question (What is a flan?) was starting to feel less technical and more existential. Every day felt like a repetition, impersonal and indistinct, even though I traveled all over the city and tasted flans that were each different from one another. I wasn’t creeping any closer to some big discovery.
In a city as big and chaotic as Buenos Aires, it is easy to be solitary. The little boy that passes by my balcony each day at 6 p.m. and screams “Hola” at the top of his lungs reminds me it’s time to stop working. A trip to my preferred empanada shop could turn into a wine tasting with the owner whilst he recites gaucho poetry. At the end of the movie, everyone applauds. From the back of a cab, you can hear the driver’s life story.
In Buenos Aires, you are always accompanied, even when you are all alone, except, I learned, when you dine by yourself. Then the energy of the city suddenly slows around you.
“I don’t care if people think that this is a flan or not,” Steve Becker, the head chef at La Favorita, later tells me. “This is the flan that I want to make and I love that people talk about it. I want this debate to form around it.”
Ironically, the polemics of Becker’s flan makes it all the more Buenos Aires. Whether his dessert is flan or not isn’t really the point. The debate that flourishes from it is. It is all a part of the sobremesa, the Argentine custom of extending a meal into a conversation that meanders well after the plates have been cleared. A moment among all the chaos where all that matters is what’s happening at your table.
I stopped eating alone and began to invite people to join me. Even a simple dinner for two turned into a three-hour event. Each meal was singular as much for what we ate as what we talked about: Robert Pattinson’s post-“Twilight” film career, the rise of Trumpian politics in South America, and the difference between Cardi B’s “WAP” and J. Dash’s “WOP.”
It was with Evy and a few other friends that I had one of the most memorable flans, despite it being far from the most delicious. It was overdone and had a burnt crust that flopped off the rest of the dessert. We peeled it off, topped it with more flan, and folded it into what will forever be known by everyone at that table as the flan taco.
I never made it to 30 flans. I have six more to go. I think I’ll save them for meals out with friends — although we hardly need an excuse.
Photography: Magali Polverino
Art direction: Pato Katz
Food stylist: Loli Braga Menendez
Studio Manager: Candela Cortes
Art assistant: Juan Quiros
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Kevin Vaughn is a writer, cook, and tour operator based out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the last decade. All of his work connects a profound interest in the intersection of food, community, narrative, history, and the sociopolitical.
Magali Polverino is a food and still life photographer from Buenos Aires, Argentina, whose work is particularly influenced by the play between light and shadow.
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