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Codfish Cakes (It Must be December)

When I was a kid, codfish cakes were one of my favorite winter breakfasts. I think my mom got the fish from a can. She would slice them into 1-inch circles and fry them up, and I’d gobble them down with ketchup…Heinz 57, of course.

You can eat them for dinner, but for some reason they are traditionally considered a breakfast food. When I grew up and started craving them, I figured out how to make codfish cakes myself. And now my kids (who won’t often eat fish without complaining) will gobble down codfish cakes like they were candy.

This summer I was at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. We often stop there on the way to somewhere else just to get out and stretch, use the bathroom, and browse through the gift shop. I found a book there called A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances, by Laura Schenone (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004). I bought it because when I opened it up I landed right on a page with a recipe for “fried codfish” that was almost exactly the recipe that I had made from memory. The quote that went with it said, “A classic New England breakfast food that fueled many a mill girl.” The recipe came from a cook book written in 1856. Maybe in a past life I was a mill girl in New England. But I love it when an old recipe works just as well today as it did in its own time.

I’ll give measurements because some people want them, but for this recipe it’s not at all required to be precise in your measuring. The recipe calls for salt cod, but you can use any leftover (or even fresh) white-fleshed fish. Salt cod is often found in stores around the winter holidays because it’s almost a sacred food in many cultures—definitely so in Italian cuisine, for example. Portuguese, too. While I had some in my shopping cart the other day, a man in the bakery department saw it and cooed over it, telling me that in his home country (Puerto Rico) they eat salt cod straight, but it’s best in a salad with avocado and onion.

Cod Fish Cakes

Ingredients:

  • 1 fish filet (cod, or substitute another white-fleshed fish)
  • 2 cups mashed potatoes (see note below)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tablespoon butter or olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Take the fish and cut it up into bits, and put the pieces in a bowl. If you are using salt cod, you must soak it in water overnight before using (change the water a few times) to get the excess salt out of it.

2. Add the mashed potatoes and egg. Stir it up well.

3. Heat the butter or olive oil in a sauté pan. Form the mixture into patties and cook until both sides are browned and crispy.

4. Salt and pepper to taste, and serve with Heinz 57 ketchup (organic if you can get it!).

You can use any old leftover mashed potatoes; my recipe for mashed potatoes is simply boiled potatoes, butter, and milk, mashed together with a hand masher. Use as much butter as you like, or whole or skim milk if you prefer (don’t add too much milk, though). Salt and pepper to taste.

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12 Responses to Codfish Cakes (It Must be December)

  1. Amanda December 2, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Mmmmm….these sound amazing! I’m actually a big fish-for-breakfast fan. When my family would go camping or to the shore, we’d always throw a line in early, early. Whatever we caught before breakfast would be consumed that morning (usually rolled in cornmeal or dusted with flour and fried). And my 3-year-old adores fish, so I’m sure this will be a hit at our house.

  2. Jennifer December 2, 2009 at 4:18 pm #

    I usually love your posts; but, with cod stocks being so depleted (as well as other fish sources), is it responsible to post a recipe? To me, it’s like suggesting that we all go out and eat an endangered species.

    Otherwise, keep up the good work. I will continue to read.

  3. Maya December 2, 2009 at 5:17 pm #

    This recipe is awesome but that’s a great point, Jennifer. Is there another white fish that would work well instead?

  4. Karen December 2, 2009 at 10:47 pm #

    Codfish was the cheapest fish to buy when I was a tiny being in Massachusetts in the early 50’s. Pretty soon we will be eating snails like the Japanese. One of my friends remembers being embarrassed about a LOBSTER SANDWICH on HOMEMADE BREAD that his mum packed for him in his lunch for school. All of the others had store-bought bread with bologna…..
    Slow down and enjoy. Whatever happened to that ?!?

  5. Laura December 2, 2009 at 11:56 pm #

    Hey Maria, thanks for the mention of my book “A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove.” I’m glad you found it and that it confirmed your memories. Codfish cakes are such a superior breakfast to the sugared cereals our kids beg for. And of course you can make it with an alternate mild fish.

    best
    Laura Schenone

  6. Donna in Delaware December 5, 2009 at 9:18 am #

    I’m not a big fish lover, so when I do consume the scaly delicacy, it must be prepared certain ways. I grew up with my grandmother having stewed fish and eggs for breakfast with corn cakes. The smell in the morning as a child made me sick. To this day I’m not crazy about smelling fish in the morning. We also grew up with lots of fried whiting and mackerel steaks.
    I would go with my elder family members on fishing trips and when we returned home, my grandmother would scale and clean the fish, then fry them for dinner. I had fish coming out of my ears! So needless to say
    I don’t eat much to this day. I will eat trout fried in butter (meuniere)
    and a pan-fried butter fish. I have grown to like salmon, but prepared a
    certain way. I perfer all white fish, flaky and fresh with a sweet meat.
    I wish I could be like some and each fish constantly because of the health benefits, but my stomach can’t seem to take much of it.

  7. Ronn in NC December 12, 2009 at 8:19 pm #

    I saw this article and had a taste memory from my childhood 50 years ago in Connecticut. I called my mother, and she dug up her recipe in her Fanny Farmer cookbook – very similar to yours! We used to buy dried, salted codfish in a wooden box in our local grocery. I remember eating fried codfish cakes with Heinz 57 for lunch, and look forward to replicating the recipe for old times’ sake. Thanks for evoking that memory!

  8. Elizabeth Butler April 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Fish cakes are one of our favorite meals. I use any mild white fish that is sustainably harvested. Instead of potatoes, I use crushed saltines, lemon juice, and mayonnaise with the egg. We like tarter sauce on these. We make potato cakes with leftover mashed potatos with eggs and a bit of onion as a separate favorite dish.

  9. Brandice June 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    Shoot, who would have thouhgt that it was that easy?

  10. Nellie February 20, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    During lent, in my upstate PA hometown, the churches made and sold cod fish cakes. When I tried to find a church that still makes them I was unsuccessful because the women have given up on that kind of work. I’ve been looking for a recipe that sounds like the one they used. Thank you. My grandmother served them for dinner with either a slightly watered down tomato soup sauce or just a heated milk and butter sauce. I can’t wait to make them.

  11. anne lynch September 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    silly question, but is the fish cooked first?

  12. anne lynch September 19, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    silly question is the fish cooked first then cut up?

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