Every so often I find myself sitting cross-legged in the center of a dimly lit, unfurnished hotel room. I’m unable to stand, because my pajama bottoms are stuck to the dingy beige carpet beneath me. What’s worse, I don’t even attempt to wriggle out of my pajamas, for fear that I’ll knock over the neatly stacked wall of empty cat-food tins surrounding me. So there I sit, ass glued to the floor, scanning the room for cats, until I finally realize that there aren’t any. There never are.
That’s when I do what I always do when I find myself in this situation: I wake up.
Sometimes I’m wearing pajamas; sometimes it’s sweatpants. Though my wardrobe varies, two things remain painfully the same: the tidy bulwark of empty cat-food tins and the conspicuous absence of cats.
I don’t need to pay anyone $90 an hour to tell me what this dream means. (Although I really must get around to telling my shrink about it. He’d have entirely too much fun deconstructing it.) I’m 43 years old, romantically unattached, lacking in savings of any sort, and mildly allergic to cats. You do the math.
Better yet, I’ll do it for you. I’m having my midlife crisis.
I’m at that age—actually, a couple years past it—when the average American evaluates how he’s spent the first half of his life. Time to ask the hard questions. Like, did I really need to spend that month in Morocco instead of investing the money in a 401(k)? Was culinary school a wiser choice than business school? Should I have held onto my independence rather than settling into a convenient and financially cushy partnership with someone I didn’t truly love? Was it really a good idea to go to that art auction after drinking three martinis, just because I was trying to impress a manic-depressive ex-con?
(My responses to the above are yes, yes, yes, and no—but that serigraph looks really great above my bed.)
I get what my recurring dream is about. I’m afraid of ending my days poor, alone, and having to eat cat food. Some part of my unconscious seems to be telling me that if I don’t change my ways, my nightmare will one day become my reality.
Thing is, I’m rather pleased with the way my life has played out thus far. I’ve very few regrets. I’ve loved deeply, collected an embarrassing wealth of friends, and eaten my fair share of beautiful food. I’ve seen London; I’ve seen France; I’ve even seen John Wayne without his underpants. I’d say I’ve had a rather swell life. I wouldn’t change a thing. Really. Except for the part where I don’t have any money.
And so, no, I don’t regard this little nocturnal premonition as an accurate preview of the last act of my life. Instead, I accept it as a simple—if persistent—warning. A memento vivere. A personal reminder to live. I don’t have to end my days broke, alone, and smelling strongly of 9 Lives®. My dream is telling me that I should unstick my butt from the floor. That I ought to get out more. That I might find love or, at the very least, companionship if I simply tear down my self-made walls and let others in. And that even though I’d never in a million years actually stoop to eating Friskies® Senior Diet Classic Paté Pacific Salmon Dinner, I may consider serving food fit for human consumption out of the empty cat-food tins. Just for fun.
What better way to curtail my nightmares than to eat my fears, rather than letting them eat me? I can’t imagine a more excellent form of therapy. And it doesn’t cost anywhere near $90 an hour.
Think about it. Empty pet-food tins render expensive ramekins unnecessary. And who needs labor-intensive haute cuisine when you can have something as simple and silken as flan, made all the more enticing by its affordable elegance. Because let’s face it, if you’re eating out of cat-food cans, you need all the richness and beauty you can muster.
Should any of my dinner guests ask me where in heaven’s name I got the idea to serve dessert in cat-food cans, I’ll pour them a little more wine, look at them with misty eyes, and tell them it came to me in a dream. Feel free to borrow the dream—and the recipe.
The marvelous thing about cat food is that its container can be reused in multiple ways: as an ashtray, as a place to keep your change, as a distinctive dessert dish. And for all its richness, flan happens to be a remarkably affordable dish to create, especially since a couple of the ingredients can be obtained for free from your local big-name coffee house. Just arrive armed with a discarded cup from the same venue, make your way to the sugar-and-creamer island, fill the cup with half-and-half, grab as many sugar packets as you can stash, and make your way to the exit. Quickly.–Michael Procopio
LC Class Note
Classic flan. Not-so-classic presentation. But bonus points for creativity. Yes, if you must, you can make it in ramekins instead.
Classic Flan Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 40 M
- 1 H, 50 M
- Makes four 6-ounce flans
- Four 6-ounce cans cat food
- 1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons water
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- A hefty pinch salt
- 1. Open all 4 cans cat food. Feed the contents to your cats. If you do not own any cats, feed it to your neighbors’ cats. If your neighbors do not own any cats, you may (a) make a vain attempt to donate opened cat food to your local animal shelter or (b) eat it yourself. Do not waste the contents of these cans by throwing it away.
- 2. Neatly tear the label along the back side of each can, choosing a loose place where no adhesive has been applied. To remove the labels, gently pull them away from the can. If they are adhered firmly, steam them off. Set labels aside in a dry place.
- 3. Wash the cans in hot, soapy water and leave to soak overnight in a mild bleach solution to remove any hint of salmon or chicken flavoring. Rinse well and air dry.
- 4. Preheat the oven to 325°F (163°C). Place your cans in a small roasting pan next to the stove, ready to accept the molten caramel you will soon pour into them. Wear shoes.
- 5. In a small, heavy saucepan, place 1/4 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons water. Warm over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves, swirling the pan. Increase the heat to medium and cook until the sugar begins to caramelize. Lift the pan from the heat, swirling as you go, until the desired color has been attained. A golden color is excellent. If it reaches a rich brown, the caramel will taste slightly bitter, which some people enjoy. If it turns black, start over and pay more attention next time. Immediately divide the molten caramel into your 4 cat food cans. Let cool.
- 6. Gently whisk the eggs and the remaining 1/3 cup sugar in a medium bowl. Add the half-and-half, cream, vanilla, and salt with gentle strokes of your whisk to avoid creating bubbles of air, which cause a pockmarked flan. Let sit for a few minutes until the sugar is fully dissolved, then pour through a fine-mesh strainer set over a pitcher (a 4-cup measuring cup is ideal) to remove more air bubbles, clots of cream, and microscopic bits of eggshell.
- 7. Place your cat food containers in a small roasting pan. Divide the custard among your 4 repurposed cans, filling each until just below the ridge. Pull the oven rack out partway and place the roasting pan on the oven rack. Add enough hot water to the roasting pan to reach slightly more than halfway up the sides of the cans. Cover the roasting pan tightly with foil. Gently slide the oven rack into the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Rotate the pan 180°. Continue to bake for 20 to 25 minutes more. Remove the pan from the oven, discard the aluminum foil, and let the flan cool in the water bath for at least 10 minutes. Let them cool completely on a wire rack before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating overnight.
- 8. To serve, reapply the cat food labels upside down with a few discreet dabs of glue. Gently run the tip of a paring knife between the can and the outside edge of the flan. Place a small serving plate directly over each can, flip it over, and give the whole thing a short, sharp downward thrust. Leave the can intact. If the flan is successfully loosened from the can, you should see a small amount of liquid caramel seeping from the bottom. Set the dessert before your horrified, er, curious dinner guests. Leading by example, gently lift the can from the plate to reveal the flan inside. At this point you may pause to accept either the praise of your friends or their excuses for a hasty departure. If the latter, offer to divide the abandoned flan among the remaining diners.
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Classic Flan Recipe © Michael Procopio. Photo © 2013 Michael Procopio. All rights reserved.