What Children — and Parents — Can Learn From Baking Together

What Children — and Parents — Can Learn From Baking Together

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There’s a picture that I keep in the left-hand corner of my computer screen, of me and my son, Joshua, who is now grown, baking together years ago. It shows me bent over the kitchen counter gingerly disengaging a bell-shaped cookie from a large piece of dough. It looks as if it might have been gingerbread. Joshua — age uncertain, less than 3, I’d say — is standing on the stool we bought for just this job. He’s holding a cookie cutter, and there are more scattered about. We both have flour on our fingers; Joshua has some in his hair and on his sleeve, too. We’re both concentrating intently.

We baked together regularly but rarely took pictures. I wish we’d taken more. If we had, I think I would have seen us growing older, but not different. In the gingerbread picture, I recognize the curve I still make over the counter and the way Joshua holds his head when he’s focused, the way he keeps his arms close to his body when the task is intricate.

Our silhouettes would be the same today, and we would probably be doing the same things. Playing with the dough a little longer than any recipe would recommend. Molding miniature figures from the scraps. Licking bowls, spoons and fingers. Piling dishes in the sink and leaving them for later. Sitting on the floor in front of the oven window, watching our work rise, turn golden and set. Snatching hot cookies from the rack. Smiling, happy to be together in the warm room with the fragrance of butter and sugar and spice around us.

As Joshua grew older, what we baked didn’t change much. We made the cookies and plain cakes we had always loved and the ones we probably could have made without reading the recipes. What changed was how we worked together. I no longer needed to teach Joshua about baking. He no longer felt he had to show me what he could do. Our time in the kitchen was simply time to be together doing something we liked. Sometimes we would work silently, and sometimes the work became the backdrop for conversations on subjects we might never have broached outside the kitchen, without the comfort of dough in our hands and a familiar job ahead of us. These moments are written indelibly into our shared memory.

Something else was being written as we worked, too, something I didn’t really think about until last year. I had just finished a talk at a bookstore outside Los Angeles when a boy named Austin, age 2 1/2, walked over to have his copy of my cookbook “Baking From My Home to Yours” signed. The book weighed five pounds, and his mother helped him heft it onto the desk. It was smudged and dog-eared and lumpy in odd places. Austin started leafing through the book, and I saw why it was so misshapen: Every few pages there was a photograph of him with his mother and what they had baked. Under the image was the date. “‘I think of this book as his baby journal,” his mother told me. When Austin would come to a photo, he would point to it and say, “I made this!” Each time he said it, he lifted his head from the book, looked directly at me and smiled.

When I was pregnant, I dreamed of having a child with an eclectic appetite and a proclivity toward all things French. Michael, my husband, a skilled woodworker, imagined a child who could make things with his hands. Michael believed that when you craft something, you know when it’s right. You can measure its good qualities on your own — you don’t need someone else’s praise or approval to understand that you’ve done a job well.

Our time in the kitchen — all those cookies and cakes and brownies and cupcakes — gave Joshua that quiet sense of competence. Maybe especially the cupcakes. I remember one afternoon when Joshua must have been in middle school. Until that day, every baking project was a work for 20 fingers; that day, he told me that I could sit on the windowsill, that he would make the cupcakes himself. I watched him line the muffin tins with pleated papers and mix the batter. We chatted, and he worked, checking that there was the same amount of batter in each cup, poking the tops of the cakes to see if they were baked through and finally frosting them. When the cupcakes were ready, he admired his work. I did, too.