The year I fell in love with Italy was a tumultuous one for me. I was 35 years old, and in the midst of trips for work to Nepal and Ghana, I was diagnosed with skin cancer, my boyfriend dumped me and I found myself homeless in New York City. This all happened in about a month. No one lands on their feet in situations like these and I was no exception. It was tough.
But after a couple of frantic months spent sleeping on couches and navigating the New York rental scene, the cancer was safely behind me, a perfect apartment was found and furnished, and a woman I knew through work invited me to stay with her in Rome. She even let me bring a friend.
The trip was only 10 days long but it would change my life forever. In less than two weeks, I had fallen in love with a cuisine, a country, and a man, and I wouldn’t need the perfect apartment in New York City for much longer.
Our hostess also brought us to her country house in Umbria and we had lunch not far from the magnificent cathedral in the hilltop city of Orvieto. If you’ve never been, you can reach Orvieto in a cable car. The city is perched that far up on a hill. It’s magical.
It was a windy spring day with bright clear skies and abundant sunshine. We dined in a dark restaurant with little natural light or ornamentation, but it hardly mattered. The meal was perfect, especially as I was still learning what Italian food actually is and was completely in awe of it at every turn. I will never forget the asparagus flan (sformato di asparagi in Italian) we had as an appetizer that day, nor the simple ricotta dessert we shared but I will save that for another post.
As I imagine happens with most magical things, from fairies to leprechauns to once-in-a-lifetime meals, they flicker bright, then vanish as quickly as they come. I’m imagining Cinderella running down the cathedral steps after my flan that day and flitting away into the wind. The restaurant is no longer there. I managed to go back once with my boyfriend before it closed but I hardly recall the meal at all.
Yet I can still make the asparagus flan and let some of the magic from that day flicker again. I also must admit that, unlike most recipes I post on this blog, this one is not entirely easy breezy and simple to make. It requires a little patience and know-how, but not too much. The steps are basic — cook and purée the asparagus and mix with a white cream sauce (the standard besciamella in Italian or béchamel in French), mix in some cheese and eggs, and bake, but you have to make the white cream sauce with care and watch the flan carefully in the oven.
You can also make this recipe with just about any vegetable that you can boil until tender. I adapted the recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, Regional Italian Recipes (Le Ricette Regionali Italiane) by Anna Gosetti della Salda. (Here is a list of some my favorite Italian cookbooks if you’re curious). The author proposes other vegetables to showcase in a flan, such as spinach, green beans, peas, and carrots. I bet it’s beautiful with carrots and will have to try that soon.
I also still have the same Italian boyfriend from that once-in-a-lifetime trip and I made this asparagus flan for him over the weekend for his birthday, in lieu of a cake. While the cookbook I adapted it from suggested serving it with sausages, which I bet is absolutely delicious, I served it with steak. We were going to have the leftovers with a sensible salad the next day for lunch as it’s delicious cold too but it wound up beside wild pork sandwiches instead.
Serves 6 as an appetizer
Adapted from a recipe for vegetable flan (sformato di verdura in Italian) from the northern region of Emilia-Romagna in the famous and much beloved cookbook originally published in 1967, Regional Italian Recipes (Le Ricette Regionali Italiane) by Anna Gosetti della Salda.
- 1 big bunch of asparagus, about 600 grams or a little more than a pound, tough bottom ends removed and chopped into large pieces
- 2 cups of whole milk
- Approximately 10 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 1 cup of firmly packed grated parmesan cheese, about 100 grams
- 1/3 of a cup of flour, about 80 grams
- 4 eggs
- Salt and pepper
Cook and purée the vegetables
- Boil the vegetables in lightly salted water until tender.
- Purée in a blender with about 4 tablespoons (50 grams) of butter and season with nutmeg and a little salt.
Make a besciamella (aka white cream sauce)
- Warm the milk in a small pot.
- Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a pan (large enough to whisk 2 cups of milk in) over medium-low heat.
- Add the flour to the butter while whisking constantly and cook for about 2 minutes. Be careful that it does not brown.
- Slowly add the warm milk while whisking.
- Simmer while keeping your eye on it and whisking occasionally until it becomes thick and no longer tastes like flour.
- Season with nutmeg.
- Mix the besciamella into the asparagus.
- Add the grated cheese and mix well.
- Add the eggs one at a time and mix well.
- Butter a pan and sprinkle with a layer of breadcrumbs. The cookbook called for a large round pan with a hole in the center. I used a medium-sized springform pan that I normally use for cheesecakes. You could also use small ramekins or a cupcake pan to make individual flans. I ate an individual flan that day in Orvieto.
- Cook with a bain-marie or heated bath in a 325°F (160° C) oven for about an hour while watching carefully. Cooking with a bain-marie just means that you cook your cake pan inside a larger pan filled with water. I put my springform pan inside a roasting pan which I filled with water about halfway up the side of the cake pan. This is a common technique when baking moist, delicate things like cheesecake, and flan, just make sure your springform pan if you are using one seals tight.
- Watch the flan carefully while it cooks. If it starts to brown too fast on top, you may need to cover it with something like aluminum foil. As with a cake, insert a toothpick in the middle to check if it is done. It is done if the toothpick comes out mostly clean but it’s a bit moist too so my toothpick wasn’t 100% clean either. The top of the flan will also set and start to turn slightly golden.
- Let it rest for about 15 minutes and then turn out onto a plate. As I used a springform pan, I just served it on the base but you could also flip it over onto a plate.