Flan in a Can

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.

swirl Flan in a Can

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

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  • 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.
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:

Michael Procopio

About Michael Procopio

Michael Procopio is a food writer living in San Francisco, CA, whose work can be seen in Can I Sit With You? and Best Food Writing 2011 as well as on his blog, Food for The Thoughtless. Michael is inordinately fond of gin, chilaquiles, and Edward Gorey.

Testers Choice

Testers Choice
Testers Choice
Jill R.

Feb 25, 2013

This is a wonderful creamy flan recipe with a nice caramel sauce. I’ll admit to having made this in custard cups rather than using the cans. It’d take too long for my cat to eat that much food.

Testers Choice
Steve Taylor

Feb 25, 2013

With the mixture of cream and half-and-half, this recipe makes a rich, luxurious flan. Though it was fun to serve in a cat food can, when making it again, I’d probably stick with regular ramekins.

Comments
Comments
  1. janis says:

    Awww…now you made me feel like I should invite you over and try to set you up.

  2. Jamie says:

    Even after putting the cat food tin through the dishwasher, I’m not sure I could bring myself to make a beautiful flan in it. Thankfully, I don’t have a cat. But I do meticulously wash and dry sardine, tuna, and crème de marrons cans and that would do. Gorgeous flan and what a way to find comfort and happiness.

    • Jamie, use whichever tins will most likely provide you with the most comfort. Only I do suggest that, rather than running them through the dishwasher, you let them soak in a mild bleach solution overnight. That removes all traces of cat food odor. I imagine it would do the same for tuna and sardines, but am entirely uncertain as to the eradication of, er, fumet de crème de marrons.

  3. A. C. Parker says:

    Michael, we’re the same age. And the instantly recognizable dream I have involves all of my teeth falling out. But thanks to you, now I know what to eat if my midlife anxieties ever come true: flan. (It’s delicious and better yet: who needs teeth for that?). But seriously, hats off to you for a masterstroke of creativity–and to the good folks at LC for giving a home to the quirky geniuses among us.

    • A.C.– Our middle-aged anxiety dreams are wonderfully compatible. If you tell me that you had childhood nightmares that were complementary to my own about Tickle Ladies who wore control-top panty hose and had super-stretch arms, we need to become friends immediately.

      Thank you for the wonderfully kind words.

  4. skippy says:

    Cat-tested. Cat-approved.

  5. Everything you write, Michael, I enjoy immensely.
    XOXO

  6. Alas, I have no cats but I do so love your technique. The only other thing I’ve used cat food cans for was flower arrangements.

    • ciaochowlinda–The amount of practical uses for cat food tins is almost enough to make me want to go out and adopt a cat of my own. Or several–I am currently building a chest of drawers out of them for mother’s negligés and I am running out of supplies.

  7. Ryan Franson says:

    I am making this for my next dinner party – should I ever throw a dinner party. What I think is most brilliant——other than your writing——is how much the seeping caramel beneath the tin on the plate resembles the liquified “gravy” atop a freshly opened tin of cat food.

    • Ryan–Please take photos of said dinner party’s dessert course. Or, better yet, take photos of your guests as they receive said dinner party dessert. You know, the seeping gravy effect was merely a happy accident. I hadn’t even realized it until you pointed it out. As always, thanks for the nice things you say.

  8. Catherine says:

    I guess I need to check when I get home, but don’t the cans have the same plastic lining that regular canned food has?

    • Catherine–You raise a very excellent question. I believe they do contain a Bisophenol A lining, just like pretty much all other manufactured canned food, human or not. BPAs have been used to line cans for decades and are deemed safe by the USFDA. Of course, just because the Food & Drug Administration says something is safe doesn’t mean it is. However, I think that ingesting a little plastic every now and again probably firms up the skin, which is an important thing to consider when one reaches a certain age.

  9. My cats are true gourmands who not only appreciate expensive vet-prescribed food but expensive vet-forbidden French butter and time-consuming homemade desserts eaten directly off the counter as well. No doubt they’ll suck this down in seconds.

    • As long as they don’t show their appreciation by enjoying the flan a second time on the living room carpet, I feel that cats have the right to consume this flan wherever they like.

      • Cynthia says:

        This entire flan article has just made my day!! Thank you, Michael. I think I’m going to have to get a cat just for the cat food cans. The added bonus of BPAs solving the wrinkle issue is an added bonus. Your great sense of humor is so very much appreciated.

        • Cynthia– Thank you. Your comment has made my day. I’m currently considering other ways to boost my BPA intake. I think sprinkled into smoothies would be most effective.

  10. Susan says:

    More interesting to your shrink (and to your friends) than your dream is the fact that you actually bought cat food to use the can as a cooking and serving vessel for this dessert! I’d have to wonder about our relationship as your “friend”, too. Regardless, I’d be a good sport and go for it…though I would probably be tasting more ernestly hoping not to detect any favorite kitty flavors in the flan before purring out any compliments!

    • Susan– Half the fun of relationships is worrying about them. And I promise you that if you soak the cans in a mild bleach solution overnight, there will be no kitty flavors left. Unless your kitty happens to smell exclusively of caramel and vanilla.

  11. Christine says:

    What a lovely piece of writing. Suddenly Monday (and my upcoming 49th birthday) don’t look so bleak. Thanks, Michael.

    • Christine– What a wonderfully encouraging thing to say. Thank you. Suddenly my own Monday doesn’t look so bleak, either, thanks to you.

      And Happy (Almost) Birthday.

  12. Jill R – The technique is, of course, from Mr. Andrés. I merely tweaked the recipe a tad by adding a pinch of salt and a little more caramel. If you ever do dare to make it in the cat food tins, you’ll find they actually do make great molds for it. I swear on my dessert bible.

  13. Steve Taylor – I think ramekins are just dandy. Flan should only be served in cat food cans when one is feeling dramatic. Or trying to make a statement.

  14. Amanda says:

    Lovely recipe, thanks, although I doubt I’ll be buying cat food in this cat-free house—might just use ramekins instead. Is it necessary to share the dessert of departed guest with those remaining? Couldn’t one just declare “cooks prerogative” and eat the extra oneself?

    • Amanda– You could always sprinkle a bit of kibble over ice cream and serve that to your remaining guests, if that pleases you, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to do at your own dinner party. Truly.

  15. Megan Gordon says:

    Brilliant, Michael. I’m stuck in the airport dying for something to read other than bad magazines and you’ve really come through for me today. I loved so many things about this, most of all: I could hear your voice as I scanned the words on the page as though you were reading it to me — it shines of you. Keep on keeping on. -mg

  16. Penny Wolf says:

    This recipe could be the perfect reward for a devious plan that a friend and I have had for many years. She and I, both cat owners, worked in a job surrounded mostly by men. A few were too macho to be considered pleasant. Our plan was to make sandwiches for the self-absorbed out of cat food. A little pickle, a little mayo, some very “fancy” sammies for the unsuspecting! Now we could enjoy several lunch portions (3 ounce) of your can-flan reflecting on our mew coup.

    • Penny– The Senior Diet series of canned cat food from 9 Lives would make a wonderful sandwich spread for the unsuspecting, I think. And then you could use the cans for the dessert. It’s two-fold deviousness.

      I like the way you think.

  17. I’m switching my cat to wet food immediately. All I have are the expensive kind of ramekins and don’t want to miss out on this fun. And I need ashtrays for the deck.

    I particularly appreciated the great tip for obtaining the ingredients for this dish gratis. Can you also suggest a way to turn a lightbulb into an
    oven warm enough to cook it in? If so I might then be free of any anxiety I feel at the thought of getting old and not being solvent enough to entertain elegantly. Its good work you do Michael! I hope to read more of it here.

    • Trevor– I hope you read more of it here, too.

      I will be developing an EasyBake® version of this recipe just as soon as I perfect the one in which the flan is cooked on the dashboards of cars abandoned in Southern California parking lots.

  18. What an interesting way to cook flan! You probably know this already, but this reminded me of how the Filipino Leche Flan is made in those heirloom oval tin containers, which I have here in my NJ kitchen. Through the years, I found out the oval tins were from old sardine cans and instead of throwing away, our grandmas used them to make flan. I like your idea of using smaller tins, these are easier to find. Thanks for sharing the recipe, Michael!

    • bettyannq– I did NOT know that, so thank you for telling me. I am both comforted and fascinated by this news.

      I knew it wasn’t a crazy idea. Now, thanks to you, I have proof.

  19. I love this. Too many kinds of fabulous to name. Okay: hilarious, poignant; insightful; deep; unique; and also of course, yummy. You, sir, will be my example if I ever need to explain to a budding writer what is meant by ‘voice’. I personally for one will be making this in pyrex dishes, cause I’m a baby boomer and that’s how we roll. Also because we have a dog who eats dreadful dry brown protein bits from a waxy 20 pound sack.

  20. Well, I guess this pretty much kills your chances with Martha Stewart…..
    Nice piece Michael.

    • architectrick– Two and a half months later, I finally see your comment…

      I think my chances with Martha Stewart were put to death years ago. But, honestly, I don’t think she knows what she’s missing.

      And thank you.

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