I’ve recently been trying to teach my nearly 5-year-old son, Max, to ride a bicycle, with little success. I could possibly blame Max for our tardy progress, but I must take the responsibility myself.
I’m the one who hasn’t been tremendously excited about going to the park in the freezing cold to assume the crouch-and-waddle pose behind the bike and wait for the “balance and pedal” instinct to kick in. I’m the one who has yet to figure out how to adjust the valves so that the tires aren’t permanently flattish.
My sense of inadequacy isn’t helped by the fact that my own father was extremely engaged in teaching his children, and the first lot of grandchildren, how to ride a bike. Dad managed to make running after a runny-nosed toddler who’s struggling to pedal and face forward at the same time seem like a breeze. Ditto pumps, valves and flat tires: These were all things my dad was just able to adjust, find and fix.
As bad as I may feel about failing to get my kids on bikes, I know that, sooner or later, they'll get it. But in another area, I am far less confident that I will finally manage to catch up with my folks and give my children the important heritage and life skills that I took in as a kid: breakfast.
My mother was, and still very much is, the queen of breakfast. When I was young, she would get out of bed well before anyone else; 6 a.m. was the standard. By the time we all finally huddled up around the table, oranges had been squeezed, bread had been toasted, cheese arranged on a platter, vegetables sliced, jams decanted and coffee brewed. Everything was there, school lunches included.
The 6 a.m. scene in my house today, on the other hand, is one of pandemonium. For some reason, it is just impossible to escape the perpetual cycle of washing kids, dressing kids, dressing myself, distracting kids with tablets, defusing fights, brushing hair, brushing teeth.
It often falls to our 2-year-old, Flynn, to remind us that breakfast also needs to actually happen. “Downstairs, porridge,” he commands, with little need of preposition or adverb so early on in the day.
Stirring the oats, I smile to think of the automated breakfast machine constructed by the eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts in the film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” from my childhood, or the one Rosita Pig makes in the recent movie “Sing” to allow her to slip away from the morning routine for her dozen-plus piglets. Rosita makes me think of my mum, whose combination of extreme competence, composure and controlled urgency made breakfast happen so calmly and deliciously. As I sip my first espresso of the day, I look back in awe.
Having said all that, one thing I have learned from these early years of being a dad myself is that it is all too easy to set yourself up for failure on the parenting front. Constantly looking up to others, particularly your own parents, for some ideal standard of homemaking and nurturing is a trap that too many newbie parents fall into. The picture we draw of other parents is probably less than realistic and completely unachievable, but that doesn’t save us. It does not help to know that others aren’t perfect parents; we still want to become one of them.
My coping device for this conundrum, at least on the breakfast front, is to concentrate my efforts on the weekend. Without the time constraints and general frenzy of work and school days, there is far less pressure to get things done in the morning. With this kind of freedom, I can spend time in the kitchen pretending to be my mother.
Getting started while the others are still bedded down under duvets, I make sure everything is just so, preparing food for ourselves, and often also for guests, which I wouldn’t dream of on a weekday morning. Recently, I have been cooking cheesy frittatas loaded with herbs and wintry vegetables like leeks, pumpkins and kale. I have been baking sticky buns and quick loaf cakes. I have been making crepes, pancakes and hot cakes, and I have been braising eggs in every sauce I can think of.
On weekends, as I sit around a table laden with the fruit of my hard work and surrounded by my nearest and dearest, what starts off as breakfast naturally slips on to lunch, without anyone noticing. Without the time constraints, any sense of parental guilt or domestic inadequacy vanishes into thin air. The day rolls along smoothly, almost effortlessly.
In fact, it’s a bit like riding a bike – without having to face the winter cold.
Potato Hot Cakes With Cheddar Cream and Salsa Verde
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
FOR THE HOT CAKES:
1 1/4 pounds (about 6) all-purpose potatoes such as Yukon Gold or Maris Piper, halved lengthwise
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 eggs, beaten
Salt and black pepper
3 tablespoonsolive oil, more as needed
4 to 8 eggs at room temperature, for serving
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds, lightly toasted in a frying pan without oil just until fragrant (optional)
FOR THE CHEDDAR CREAM:
3 ounces cheddar cheese, preferably aged, freshly grated into shreds (about 1 1/2 cups shreds)
1/2 cup sour cream (soured cream)
Freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE SALSA VERDE:
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon leaves
2 teaspoons capers, finely chopped
1/4 garlic clove, minced or crushed
1/3 cup olive oil
Pinch of salt
Heat oven to 450 degrees.
Arrange potatoes, cut side down, on a large parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 35 minutes or until crisp and golden brown on the outside and soft inside; cooking time will vary depending on the size of your potatoes, but you want the flesh to be soft enough to mash.
Make the cheddar cream: In a small bowl, combine cheddar and sour cream. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Make the salsa: In a bowl, mix the herbs, capers and garlic with about 1/3 cup of oil and a generous pinch of salt.
Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle (about 15 minutes), peel away and discard (or eat) the skins, being careful not to lose too much flesh. Use a potato masher to mash the flesh until smooth or chunky, as you like. Transfer about 1 1/4 cups of the mashed potatoes to a mixing bowl. (Save any extra mash for another use.)
Add lemon zest, beaten eggs, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of black pepper and mix until eggs are completely incorporated. Your batter will look like glossy, runny mashed potato.
Fry the hot cakes: Add 2 tablespoons of oil to a large nonstick frying pan and place over medium-high heat. Spoon about 1/4 cup of batter per hot cake into the pan and fry for 4 to 5 minutes, turning over once, until crisp and golden on both sides. Set aside on a paper towel-lined plate and keep warm. If you have more batter, add a final tablespoon of oil to the pan and fry the remainder in the same way. You may want to turn the heat down for the second batch if the oil is getting too hot.
When ready to serve, fry the eggs in the same pan, using additional oil if necessary.
Stir lemon juice into salsa. Divide the hot cakes between plates and top with the eggs, the cheddar cream and then salsa verde; the salsa should cover a bit of the cream but not all of it. Sprinkle with the mustard seeds (if using) and serve.
Maple-Cardamom Saffron Sticky Buns
Yield: 8 buns
Time: 1 1 / 2 hours, plus rising time
FOR THE DOUGH:
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon whole (full-fat) milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into 6 small cubes, more for greasing the pan
2 tablespoons granulated or superfine sugar (caster sugar)
1 1/8 teaspoon crushed saffron strands
1 1/2 teaspoons fast-acting (instant) yeast
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour (plain flour), more for dusting
1 1/3 cups bread flour (strong flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
FOR THE SYRUP:
7/8 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cardamom pods
1 vanilla bean (vanilla pod)
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel
1 teaspoon nigella or sesame seeds (optional)
1 1/2 to 2 cups clotted cream, mascarpone cheese, or crème fraîche, for serving
In a small pot, combine milk, butter, sugar and 1/3 cup water over medium heat and heat about 1 minute, until butter has melted and the mixture is just lukewarm. (Too much heat will kill the yeast when it’s added.)
Transfer to a bowl, add saffron and yeast, whisk to combine and then set aside until the mixture is yellow and lightly frothy, 15 to 30 minutes.
In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine both flours, the salt and the milk mixture. Knead for 3 minutes, starting on the lowest speed and gradually increasing to medium, pausing every now and then to scrape down the sides and incorporate any dry bits on the bottom of the bowl. (If there is flour that refuses to be incorporated, add a teaspoon or two of water.)
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead by hand for 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Cover dough with a damp cloth and let rest for 10 minutes.
Grease a 9-inch cake pan and line it with parchment paper. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and roll each into a smooth ball. Place 1 dough ball in the center of the cake pan and then arrange the rest in a circle around it, leaving a 1/2-inch gap on all sides of each ball. Cover with a slightly damp cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours, until doubled in size. The buns will press against one other and against the sides of the pan.
Toward the end of the rising, heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake the risen buns for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden-brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
While the buns bake, make the syrup: Use the flat side of a heavy knife to crush the cardamom and discard the papery outer pods, reserving the seeds. Use the knife or a mortar and pestle to lightly crush the seeds. Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise and use the tip of a small knife to scrape out the seeds from both sides. In a small pot, combine maple syrup, butter, cardamom and vanilla seeds over medium heat and cook 5 minutes, whisking occasionally, until the butter has melted and the syrup has thickened. Reduce the heat if necessary to prevent scorching. Set aside and keep warm.
As soon as the buns are baked, use a pastry brush to coat them evenly with syrup, then immediately sprinkle with the sea salt and seeds (if using). Let cool 10 minutes before transferring to a serving plate. To eat, slice the bun across the middle, and spread generously with clotted cream.