One in a series of essays celebrating the cooking of our fathers.
My father has been dead for more than 16 years, but I still feel him over my shoulder every time I stare at a sentence for 10 minutes, waiting for the right phrase or word to materialize out of thin air. My dad was a perfectionist, a trait he passed along to me without any formal ceremony.
As with so many behaviors handed down from one generation to another, I absorbed my dad’s perfectionism unconsciously. It was easy: The late Larry Carman was a lifelong Midwesterner, a civil engineer who believed in family, hard work and the Nebraska Cornhuskers (not necessarily in that order). When Dad took on a project — like, for example, building a downstairs bathroom, bedroom and rec room out of nothing — the rest of us would sigh and prepare for a long, dusty campaign in the basement.
But when he was done? Well, let me tell you about the downstairs bedroom he built for me: It included a private alcove with a built-in desk where I could compose my Important Teenage Thoughts. Above my desk he had installed a shelf, perfectly within arm’s reach, where I could press the power button on my Radio Shack receiver and listen to music. He had hung two small wooden speakers from the ceiling and pointed them straight toward my desk and bed.
That was how a father said “I love you” in Nebraska in the late 1970s: He built you the perfect bedroom.
Or he’d make his kids cinnamon toast on the weekend. His method was textbook obsessive, at least by the standards of the 1970s, way before the Internet turned everyone into an expert on, well, everything.
My dad would remove a rack from the oven and balance it over the kitchen sink. That approach allowed him to sprinkle sugar and cinnamon over margarine-slathered slices of white bread (go easy, now; this was the ’70s) without littering the counter with granules. In my memory, he would huddle over the oven rack and meticulously sprinkle each sweetener separately, the ratios buried deep in his head, without mixing the two beforehand in a shaker. My younger sister, Judith Lawson, recalls Dad using a shaker with a premixed combination of sugar and cinnamon. Maybe he went double-dog obsessive on that cinnamon toast as he got older?
Whatever his method, his toast was always slobber-worthy. I remember how our house would fill with the kid-magnet aromas of melted fat and sugar, a tingle of cinnamon in the air to tickle the nose. You couldn’t drag me to the dinner table, but at the first whiff of Dad’s cinnamon toast, I would bound into the kitchen like a hungry dalmatian.
My older sister, Deborah Kellogg, remembers how the tops of the toast would be “all melty and sort of crunchy” from their time under the broiler, but their undersides would be “soft and warm.” There were also furrows on the bottom, like racing stripes, impressions left by the oven rack. I think my dad liked the racing stripes.
But as I learned in developing my own cinnamon toast recipe in his honor, the racing stripes come at a cost: The sugar and cinnamon spill all over the oven floor when you bake toast on a rack. So I switched to a baking sheet. I also stumbled upon a foolproof method for applying the butter, cinnamon and sugar via a delightfully obsessive recipe from the Pioneer Woman: Ree Drummond combines the ingredients, along with vanilla extract, into a compound butter. It’s brilliant. My dad would be all over that.
As for the cardamom, salt and orange zest that I’ve added? I suspect Dad would have hated it, but like a true Midwesterner, he would have kept his opinion to himself (even if his tight-lipped silence would nonetheless transmit a message in 72-point type). All perfectionists, after all, have their limits. Which is ultimately the falsity of perfectionism: Someone can always obsess harder than you.
I wish I could share this toast with him, and we could talk about it all: about how much we’ve gained — and how much we’ve lost — due to this chase for the perfect.
Based on recipes by cookbook author and cooking show host Ree Drummond, and Larry D. Carman.
16 slices whole-wheat bread (about 1 ounce each)
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup Demerara sugar
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
Coarse sea salt
Finely grated zest of 1 navel or Cara Cara orange, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the bread slices, fitting them closely together, on two baking sheets.
Combine the butter, granulated and Demerara sugars, cinnamon and vanilla extract in a mixing bowl; use a handheld electric mixer or a fork to beat or whisk until a soft, homogenous mixture forms with no visible streaks of pure butter.
Spread 1 tablespoon of the compound butter on each slice. Sprinkle 1/8 teaspoon cardamom and a small pinch of sea salt evenly over each buttered slice of bread. Bake (middle rack; one sheet at a time) for 10 minutes, then turn the baking sheet from front to back.
Increase the oven temperature to broil (with the baking sheet still in the oven); broil for about 3 minutes, checking occasionally to make sure the bread doesn’t burn at the edges. The toast is done when it is crisped and browned around the edges.
Remove from the oven; immediately sprinkle each piece of cinnamon toast with a 1/4 teaspoon of the orange zest; serve right away. Repeat with the remaining bread.
Nutrition | Per serving: 190 calories, 3 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 170 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 11 g sugar
Recipe tested by Tim Carman; e-mail questions to email@example.com
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