What is it about cooking breakfast that makes me feel so much like a dad?
Waking up early on a Sunday morning, starting coffee, pulling out a mixing bowl, beating eggs and sifting flour -- I’m a regular Hugh Beaumont. I’d be ready to start spouting fatherly advice if my wife weren’t still asleep and my daughter hadn’t moved into her own apartment, oh, three or four years ago.
Probably just as well. As it is, I have to be satisfied with ladling batter, warming up the maple syrup and digging in. It’s always a good idea to stick with what you do best.
Notice, this isn’t true about just any breakfast. It’s a weekend-only thing. Weekday mornings are all about survival, and over the years my wife and I have arrived at clearly delineated areas of responsibility. I make the cappuccinos and do the prep work, and she’s the chef.
In cold weather, that means I make the oatmeal (I use McCann’s steel-cut; the secret is giving it a really good toasting in a dry saucepan before adding the water, then adding the dried fruit after the cooking is finished and letting it sit for five minutes or so); she finishes it with just the perfect mix of brown and white sugar, chopped nuts and a splash of cream.
Now that the weather is warmer, the chores are only a little different. I rinse and cut up the fresh fruit; the critical decisions (yogurt or milk, cereal or granola) are strictly up to her. I know my place.
However delicious those breakfasts might be, they are, ultimately, utilitarian. They’re, ugh, good for you. I will make no such claims for pancakes and waffles, at least not in the nutritional “most important meal of the day” way.
But there’s something about a weekend breakfast that nurtures in other ways. It makes any day seem like a vacation.
Maybe it’s a childhood memory thing. My dad was of that generation of men who most decidedly did not cook. Almost never. But the one meal he did make when I was growing up was breakfast, which he would serve no matter what time of day he was forced into kitchen duties. His big dishes were pancakes and waffles and something he called “schnibbles,” which meant basically cleaning out the refrigerator and scrambling it with eggs.
I don’t remember much about the quality of what he fixed (I’m pretty sure the pancakes and waffles were straight out of Bisquick). But I do remember that there was a different feeling to those breakfasts than when my mom cooked. It was a kind of summer camp/snow day thing. As if for that morning, all of the normal rules were lifted.
It’s things like that that make you wonder what your kids are going to be saying about you and your cooking. I’ve already gotten a taste of it. Growing up at the table of a food writer is not all fun and games. I remember when my daughter was about junior high age and asked before a meal, “Is this going to be dinner, or is it just another recipe test?”
That’s never an issue at breakfast. In the first place, it’s nearly impossible for me to get organized enough to test a recipe that early in the morning. Even breakfast recipes don’t usually start to come together until early afternoon (and most often wind up as dinner ... er, recipe tests).
First thing in the morning, I’m on autopilot, and the best I can hope to do is follow what somebody else has written down. And the last thing I’m going to do is sort through a bunch of different cookbooks to find them. My breakfasts tend to come straight from one source: the 1943 edition of “Joy of Cooking.”
To my mind, that’s the most classic version of that classic cookbook. You know the one: It’s iconic with a light blue diamond cover. It’s the last one that was edited primarily by Irma Rombauer, and the recipes have what is to my mind the perfect blend between authority and chattiness.
My two favorite breakfast dishes from that book -- and really, about the only breakfast recipes I regularly follow -- are the sour cream waffles and the cornmeal pancakes. I’ve written about the waffles before. They’re of the cake-y persuasion, as opposed to the light-and-crisp (for those, I love Marion Cunningham’s yeast-raised waffles, but quite honestly I almost never remember to start them the night before).
The cornmeal pancakes are a more recent discovery. I was thumbing through the book one afternoon and noticed that Rombauer, a Midwesterner normally extremely reticent with compliments, had described this recipe as “delicate and good” -- that’s practically over-the-top gushing for her.
But the thing that really caught my eye was an interesting technique I’d never seen before. With this recipe, you cover the cornmeal with boiling water and let it stand for 10 minutes before incorporating it into the batter. While most cornmeal pancakes feature a good bit of crunch, this steeping of the meal softens the grain just enough to give it a tender texture.
Oddly, the recipe disappeared from the book in some later editions, but it is back in the most recent, 75th anniversary edition (though amazingly, the sour cream waffles are not).
The corn flavor is rich but not overpowering. I like them with strawberry jam but even better with plain old maple syrup, and even better than that with a couple of crisp slices of bacon on the side.
Pour yourself a cup of coffee, wear an old plaid bathrobe, lean back in your chair and say softly and wisely: “Well, you know, Beav, this is just how breakfasts should be.”
Just be careful to do it when everyone else in the house is still asleep.