“That’s the secret right there,” Asher said, pointing at the bottom of the bowl that they’d just emptied of raw, shredded potatoes.
Maggie glanced around at her soon-to-be-in-laws’ kitchen. The space was beautiful, marble counters and dark wood and stainless steel, suggesting a level of cooking expertise Maggie was in no way capable of matching.
Mouthwatering smells were coming out of the oven. Asher’s mom had gone to the trouble of making a vegetarian jackfruit “brisket” to go alongside the real thing, so that Maggie had more to eat for dinner than fried potato patties and green beans.
Though by how much Asher had been talking up his mom’s technique, Maggie couldn’t wait for the latkes. Holiday traditions at her childhood home had involved decorating the Christmas tree with her brother and their nanny, and listening to her dad and mom talk about legal cases while eating a catered turkey dinner. Getting to share in the Hanukkah magic with Asher’s family was incredible. Ruth loved getting to recite the blessings and light the candles at sundown with her grandmother. And if only Maggie wasn’t so dang nervous, helping with latke prep would be a highlight.
“The soaking is the trick?” she asked.
“The starch, honey.” Sarah Klein-Matsuda was a blur of efficient motion, confident enough to make fried food in a crisp white blouse. “You drain off the water and then ladle the starch back into the mixture before frying. Makes the latkes nice and crispy.”
“Sounds delicious.” Maggie was in charge of using a clean dish towel to squeeze the excess water out of the shredded potatoes. She had to get it exactly right. Like, Red Seal examination perfect. She was already complicating the frying process by needing hers cooked in vegetable oil instead of Sarah’s preferred chicken fat.
She and Asher had decided to spend their first holiday season as an engaged couple in New York. With Hanukkah falling later in December this year, they were staying with Asher’s parents for two weeks, catching the last few days of the Festival of Lights through to the day after New Year’s. And aside from sharing the holidays with Asher and Ruth, both of whom she loved with every fiber of her being, impressing Asher’s parents was at the top of Maggie’s priority list.
She unrolled the towel and poked at the potato shreds. Too wet? If only she knew without having to ask. Dang it, she should have had Asher and Ruth run her through a latke dress rehearsal before they left Sutter Creek.
Sarah sidled up to Maggie and tested the grated mess with her own finger. “You can get them drier than that,” she suggested.
Maggie’s stomach sank, and she wrung harder. This is not the time to be useless in the kitchen. Her knuckles might ache, but the potatoes would be as dry as if they’d been laid out in the sun. Sarah moved on to the sink, waving for Ruth to bring her the bowl with water and starch.
“What did those potatoes do to you, love?” Asher teased, dropping a kiss on the top of her head as he walked past with a jar of homemade applesauce. He’d canned a whole batch after the Sutter Creek fall apple festival, with Hanukkah in mind. She loved seeing him so in his element. He hadn’t stopped smiling since they arrived in Brooklyn, and their two days had been jam packed with family fun. Busy enough that Ruth was only asking to Facetime with Jackson, who was staying with Lachlan, every hour or so.
“Your mom said I could get more water out,” she whispered.
“She always says that,” he murmured back. He put his free hand on her shoulder and nuzzled her cheek, tickling her skin with his beard. “Chill.”
All right, Reid, you’re being ridiculous. Asher’s mom had spoken in a perfectly kind tone. The thoughts of being useless had come from Maggie’s doubts, from the voice that sounded too much like her own mother. She had managed to do a better job lately of stifling her parents’ residual influence on her life. Being loved by the best man in the world, and his—almost officially their—daughter made it easier to recognize how damaging it was to limit the love in her life.
But she wanted Asher’s mom to like her. To love her.
Maybe even to be like a mom to her.
Hence, impressing her this trip.
Maggie took a deep breath and glanced at the other woman out of the corner of her eye.
Sarah clearly enjoyed teaching. She was patient as anything, showing Ruth how to drain off the water and save the starch from the bottom of the bowl. “How’s it looking, Maggie?” she asked.
“Better,” Maggie said.
Sarah sniffed the air. Concern crossed her face. “Is that the vegetable oil? Or the schmaltz?”
Maggie looked over at the pans of hot fat. Sarah had asked her to turn the dials to medium low a few minutes ago.
But the pan with the chicken fat was already smoking. “The schmaltz.”
“How high did you put the flames?” Sarah asked.
“I turned it a fraction to the right.”
Sarah shook her head. “It’s a weird stove. Like a barbecue. When you turn it on, it starts on high. You have to keep turning to get it lower.” She went over to the stove, turned the knob off, and shifted the smoking, cast iron pan to the back burner. “We’ll have to start over.”
“I’m so sorry,” Maggie said. “I should have done a visual check on the flame.”
Face scrunched, Asher’s mom shrugged. “Nothing we can do about it now. That was the last of the schmaltz, but Kento can go check at the deli around the corner, see if they have any left.”
Right, just what Asher’s dad needed, to be running errands after he got home from a double shift at the hospital. Whenever Maggie finished a long day at the clinic or had emergency overnight patients, the last thing she wanted to do was go out again. She shook her head. “I’ll go get it. I could use the fresh air.”
“Thanks. Two lefts and a right,” Sarah said. “You can’t miss it.”
Maggie went to the front door and started bundling up. As she bent over and pulled on her winter boots, the motion put her at eye level with the framed family pictures in their place of honor on the long, narrow table in the foyer. One in particular—two men, under a chuppah, all the love in the world lighting their eyes, made her heart pang. She attended synagogue with Asher and Ruth—the one in Bozeman welcomed everyone within their walls—and she’d always support them and join in where it was respectful, but she didn’t plan on converting, not yet, anyway.
She tied her boot laces, fighting the doubt running through her. Was she somehow shortchanging him? It hadn’t seemed like a problem at home in Montana, but it was harder not to ask the question when she was in his parents’ house.
He walked toward her, confident steps on the hardwood he’d probably been walking on since he was a kid.
“Do you want company for your walk?” He drew her against his muscular chest. Instead of the usual fabric softener, he smelled like his new vanilla-bourbon cologne.
She snuggled in, grabbing his arms and creating a biceps cocoon over her chest. “I like that scent on you. It’s warm, sexy.” His mom had given it to him when they’d exchanged gifts yesterday.
“It covers the overheated oil smell,” he joked.
She swallowed, throat tight. She forced a smile. That was tight, too. And her shoulders, and her back… Hopefully the walk would help. “Too soon.”
“Maggie. Do you know how many times my brothers and I have burned something in the kitchen?”
But she has to love you…
“I know,” she said, scooting away from his embrace to button her coat and wrap her scarf around her neck. She kissed his cheek. “It’s fixable. You stay here with Ruth and your parents. I’ll be back in a flash.”
Back to put things to right, and salvage what was supposed to be a special family moment.