A bad flan is very bad thing. Corn syrup-based sauces, curdled eggs, and imitation vanilla are enough to turn a first-time flan-eater into a lifelong custard-hater. But a good flan, the silken alchemy of eggs, milk, and sugar, gently set into a sweet, wobbling cylinder, is a pure delight. And an exemplary version of flan can be found at Sunset Park’s Panaderia La Espiga Real, a slim bakery on Fifth Avenue.
La Espiga Real boasts a whole spectrum of sweet treats: sugar-sprinkled conchas, chilindrinas stuck together with marmalade, hand-cut bizcochos, and wonderful multi-layered milhojas. Inside the shop, speed-racks are full of cooling breads, cookies, and buns. When I stop by, a worker packs up crusty telera rolls, the bread that forms the base for tortas, sold wholesale to a number of local taquerias; moms hover over trays–tongs in hand–choosing pastries for the morning. A fat slice of bread spread in buttercream (a mantecado) is used to appease a patient daughter.
You’ll be tempted by the fragrant flour-based pastries, but the real treat lies in a refrigerator case up front: the flan. La Espiga produces two large rounds a day, cut into large wedges for $1.50 a slice, and then packed into Styrofoam clamshell containers. The flan is sleek with a blond interior, the top darkened and shiny like tinted glass on a low-riding ’64 Impala. The burnt sugar bleeds an amber syrup around the dense custard, which is creamy, rich with egg, and just sweet enough. The toasted bitterness of the syrup flicks at the back of the throat, countered by the smooth sturdiness of perfectly set-custard.
One more reason to choose it over the baked goods? It’s chilled.