For those who love dessert, a sampling of different (yet similar) custards may seem confusing at first. See, when you order crÃ¨me brulee, you’ll know that you’re getting this nice French treat; it’s the same with panna cotta, custard and flans. But the fascinating thing is that these desserts have their similarities, only split by the regional cooking traditions. Interestingly, the origins of these desserts are found in Europe, with the dishes trailing the countries of Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean area.
Let us start off with custard. Looking up its meaning, a custard is founded on its English origins. A custard is basically a very creamy sauce which tops many dishes; hence, it can be sweet or savory. Sweet custards, however, true to its original function, serves as a yummy topping to many desserts such as bread pudding or sweet breads. Although custard is runnier in this form, a firmer or gelatinous version can be found as fillings between layers of sweet cake or pies.
Custards, based on appearance, can look a bit like creme brulee minus the hardened sugar topping. However, as you break into this layer, the dish reveals a creamy and sweet substance that is similar to the English version.
The panna cotta may be considered as the Italian counterpart of the crÃ¨me brulee, but in appearance and even in taste, it is far from the sweet custard. Unlike crÃ¨me brulee and sweet custard, a panna cotta is built on cooked cream whereas the other two has eggs in it. In Spain, their dessert custards are the natilla and the crÃ¨me caramel. The difference between the two is that the natilla is richer and has more similarities with the English custard, whereas the crÃ¨me caramel, also known as the flan, is firm with the same consistency as the panna cotta and crÃ¨me brulee but eggier in taste and topped with caramel sauce. These old dessert recipes are attributed based on their regions, the appreciation for these sweets have spread across Europe, and then the rest of the world.
Of course, as food travels there are the possibilities for changes. The most widespread change can be see in the Spanish flan and custards as they have reached South and North America, and even as far as the Philippines. For instance, the natilla in Colombia does not include eggs, and can be sprinkled with coconuts. Typical Spanish flans use vanilla as added flavoring, but in the Philippines, the basic flan known as the leche flan is made of condensed milk, eggs and sugar, topped with caramel sauce. And of course, there are the derivatives such as the dulce de leche which is boiled milk and sugar, and manjar blanco.
Except for the panna cotta which is an eggless custard, sweet custards, the crÃ¨me brulee and the Spanish flans/custards are the same but variations can be found in the egg content and the consistency. In any case these sweet custards are unique on their own and are recognized for their different saccharine origins.
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