Category Archives: baking

Fish Cakes Mad

Great gratin to the rescue.

(The recipe’s below.)

As a general rule, I hate fish cakes.  It’s just one of those things.  Few foods will drop my appetite faster than the hint of one cooking.  If fish cakes suddenly became the only meal available, I’d scrape moss and eat bugs.

This came to mind the other night when I walked in late to find my wife making fish cakes.  Actually, my first reflex was to think hard whether today was our anniversary.

Let me explain how I got into this situation.  It’s actually my father’s fault.  Dad was cut from a sheet of stainless steel.  When I was growing up, he was never confused by subtleties.  Things were either black, or white.  Which is why the idea that romance might require a bit more than a hallmark card with flowers on it, did not automatically occur to him.

Matters came to a head one birthday when he actually gifted my mother a large, brightly wrapped box brimming with vacuum cleaner.  In his mind, he was saving his wife unnecessary labor.  All those new, nifty attachments.  A modern shiny replacement for the old upright.

In front of the family, my mother bit her lip.  I don’t know what was said privately.  But my mother made fish cakes for dinner that night.  Oily, pungent canned tuna and bread crumbs, fried crispy brown in oil.  The house reeked for days.

Now dad, raised on a North Dakota farm with plain boiled potatoes, as far from an ocean as it was possible to be, was not a fan of fish in any form.  I don’t know if he’d ever actually run across anything with fins before he left home.  I think he privately doubted humans were intended to eat any creature that swam in its own pee and smelled like it.

But he’d raised his children to clean their plates of whatever dinner was put in front of them.  So he sat with his back straight and silently ate his fish cakes.

After that, fish cake nights would appear every so often.  And I never developed a taste.

‘What’s for dinner?’ I say.

‘New recipe’, my wife says, over a bowl of potent canned salmon and spices, already being formed into patties.  The dog is on station, alerted by the smell, hoping for an accident.

‘And rice’, she says.  And its clear, if I’m going to get something to eat, I’m going to have to make it myself.  What have I forgotten?

‘You said you’d make dinner tonight’, she says, solving the riddle, and then I remember, she’d asked me to cover.

‘Coming up’, I reply, and wonder whether somewhere, silently, dad’s smiling.  It’s a brave new world, pop.

Now, the only way to make up for a lousy main dish is to load on the sides.  And if possible, make something that will stand on its own.  I happen to have just the recipe.  And, while it’s pretty simple to make, it’s actual cooking, not just opening a box.  Julia Childs made it.  It even has a French name: Gratin Dauphinois.  So, it qualifies as fixing dinner.  And, Dad would approve.

You’ll Need: a 9 x 13 baking dish, cheese grater, knife or mandoline (the slicing tool, not the musical instrument), medium sauce pan

Ingredients:

  • six large russet or other starchy potato
  • 1 unpeeled garlic, cut in half
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere or good Swiss cheese
  • 2 cups boiling milk or (it’s better with) cream

How To Make:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F / 190 C.  Peel and slice the potatoes into rounds 1/8 inch thick.
  2. Bring the milk or cream to steaming hot in the saucepan, but don’t let it boil over.  When it tries, turn off the heat.
  3. Rub the cut side of the garlic clove all around the baking dish.  Then smear, to cover, the baking dish bottom and sides with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
  4. Spread half the potato slices in the baking dish, top with half the remaining butter, and half the salt and pepper.
  5. Put the rest of the potatoes in a layer on top.  Add the remaining butter, salt pepper, and then sprinkle evenly with the cheese.
  6. Carefully pour the milk or cream into the baking dish.
  7. Put a baking sheet (with a lip) in the oven on a shelf about one third of the way from the top.  Put the baking dish with potatoes on the baking sheet.  (Pull the shelf partly out to help keep from spilling.)
  8. Bake about 30 minutes. You’ll know when it’s done when the potatoes are tender to a fork, the top is golden brown and bubbly.
  9. Let it set out of the oven about ten minutes before serving.
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Do Real Men Bake Holiday Cookies?

I was hanging lights from the peak of the roof one year, and as I reached out for the farthest hook, trying to recall whether our insurance covered three-story falls,  a small crowd gathered in the yard near the ladder.  This is somewhat of a Holiday tradition.  My wife sends the kids out to see if Dad’s done a header, and the four of them stand shoulder to shoulder on the lawn and watch, ready to dash back in the house to report as soon as it happens.

Now, that’s an invitation to joke.  So, I swung one arm around my head, wobbled back and forth, and made like I was losing my balance.  Which, for one icy moment of electric fear, high on the extension ladder and one hand’s reach too far from anything solid to grab onto, I did.  The ladder screeched on the gutter, I leaned left, it stopped its slide, and then it was over.  Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.  And, sorry to say, scared the kids, proper.

They hit the porch like the blitz and before I could get down to ground level had reappeared with their mother.

“What are you doing up there? The kids thought you were going to fall!”

“Just kidding around. All safe.  How do they look?” I said, looking up.

“Not funny. Not one bit.”  She motioned with her eyes to the kids. The elder girls looked angry, the small kids  still wide-eyed.  Not going to let it go.  I started to reassure them, but their mother steered me off.

Now, my wife has a look.  It’s exactly the look I imagine she would have used if we were standing at the altar to get married, and I said, ‘Can I think about it?’ when we got to the “I do’s”.

‘I have an idea’, she said, and gave me that look.

‘Would you like to make cutout Christmas cookies with your Father?’, she said.  And to my surprise the frowns melted.  Smiles came out. The neighbors came to the window to see who won the superbowl.

‘Now…’, I said, getting ready to explain why I’d be putting the chainsaw to some firewood rather than doing ballet with a rolling-pin and green frosting.  But between the tugging and shouting, laughter and the look, I never got the chance.

I don’t know about you, but I remember my own mother, and grandmother, and cutout cookies at Christmas.  Mostly, I remember how they rolled the dough just so, and carefully cut and then lifted the cookies onto baking pans ever so gently, so as not to break off heads or hands or tips of stars or trees in the process.  And, I remember how they eventually gave in and just let me squash my broken attempts up into lumpy round Christmas balls.  I became an expert at Christmas balls.

And I wasn’t looking forward to making more as an adult.

To make a long story short, I gave in.  And, I was wrong.  I ended up dusted in flour, with a real kitchen mess, a few dozen colorful cutout cookies and one pan burnt beyond eating, but four chirping, happy kids having the time of their life laughing at me and making cookies.   We had a really good time.  Holiday cheer. And they did some up specially, as gifts for Dad, to make up for my meager attempts.

After we put the kids to bed, my wife got busy with the pans and bowls.

“Now if you go and kill yourself, at least the kids will have one big happy Christmas memory to remember you by’, she said.  And threw me the  dish towel to dry.

If you decide to make some memories of your own, I’ve put up the best, failsafe cutout Holiday cookie recipe and complete instructions over at Dad’s In the Kitchen.  Have a great time.

Winner By A Nose

It seems about the Homemade bread cooking Dadonly way for a Dad to succeed with kids today is to grab them by the nose, sit them down at the kitchen table, and put your money where their mouth is.  Let me explain.

Being a father’s always been a challenge.  Some of us spend a lot of time out of the house, so we have to wear the name tag and introduce ourselves on a regular basis.  But I don’t think men ever had to compete for kid’s attention the way we do today.  When I come home and say, ‘let’s go play’, I hear ‘I’m busy’.  What ever happened to kids being bored stiff and wishing somebody’d want to go do something?

The problem, it turns out, is we’re now sharing the house.  With a whole crowd of visiting families.  Cosby started it. Now we’ve also got Homer and Bernie Mack, George Lopez, Billy Ray Cyrus, Peter from Family Guy, and the list just goes on.  And all day long there’s this stream of tweeters and facebooking fans, inhabitants of farmville, and busloads of characters from gameland all tramping through.  Getting elbowed aside by Shrek and the whole Hollywood universe.  It’s a miracle to get a word in edgewise.

My brood was becoming a bit like snow leopards, rumored to exist but only occasionally spotted.  They still dished out hugs and smiles when they saw me, but sightings were rare.  And, it occurred to me, if I wanted to protect them, I was only one voice in a very big and noisy wilderness.  When it came to having an influence on what they think, and how they saw things, some food corporations managed to get in more messages a day than I did.

I decided it was time to compete.  Time to tag and track.  Rebuild the pride.

And the one guaranteed place I knew I could catch them was where they came to feed.  The kitchen.

The question was, what to use for bait? Candy, chips, fast food they could find anywhere, and shouldn’t.  I needed something they’d come out of hiding for, and come back for, and keep them purring while we spent time getting comfortable together.

It didn’t come to me til I was out in the garage one afternoon, feeling low.  I came across a bread machine, still boxed.  I couldn’t remember where it came from.  But, for some reason, I decided to give it a go. Instructions didn’t look hard at all.  It looked like something I could do.

I can tell you, if you haven’t experienced it yourself in a while, there’s nothing quite like the warm, wafting scent of fresh baking bread in the nostrils to grab attention.  It’s a primal thing.  A raise-the-head-up and wonder where that smell’s coming from kind of thing.  And no loaf in a wrapper from the chain store has it.

I lit the thing up one evening after dinner and in an hour had a crowd standing around waiting for a slice.

In the end, I’m not sure what the best thing about it was.  Everybody chatting around the warm oven like long-lost relatives around a campfire.  Mouth watering homemade bread.  Dad holding court and doling out slices for toast and jam.  Or, over the years we’ve been doing it since, the things we’ve learned about each other, and the memories we’ve made. With something truly special, they can’t get anywhere else.

I do know this.  In my family, we have a tradition.  One that’s stood through good times and teary nights.  A simple loaf and a little time in the kitchen. And Dad, a part of it.