Her specialty are meringues — perfectly piped, crispy on the outside with a slight chew in the middle. The flavors of her meringues vary based on what extracts we have on hand – almond or lemon, vanilla or orange. Meringues at first glance appear to be a simple, sweet treat with no decorations and only a few ingredients — egg whites, sugar, flavoring extract, and cream of tartar. Don’t be deceived; to achieve the perfect meringue texture requires practice and skill. My oldest daughter Sophia, age twelve, has mastered this bake.
I handed my kitchen over to Sophia about a year ago when it became apparent she had mastered the basics of baking. With pride I watched her adeptly maneuver the kitchen while I sat on the sidelines. Sophia has baked alongside her grandmothers and me since she was eighteen months of age, long before she could reach the counter, and now she is mostly independent.
When I observe Sophia baking, I remember what it is like to be a young girl. My grandmother gave me free reign of her kitchen at ten years of age. I baked oatmeal cookies and Johnny Cakes from scratch, proudly serving them to family. I will be back in my grandmother’s kitchen this Christmas. I am looking forward to baking alongside her, my mother, and my four children as we make gingerbread cookies with homemade icing, pound cake, and pies.
I believe baking is an endeavor and a mess worth making with our children. Here are a few reasons why.
It blurs generation gaps.
I’m not sure who taught Sophia how to crack an egg. Was it my mother when Sophia was four years of age helping her mix the ingredients for my granny’s famous pound cake? Was it my husband’s mother while they made toffee bars at Christmas-time?
Once Sophia learned how to crack an egg, wasn’t it I who taught her how to separate the egg white from the yoke by sloshing them between the two cracked halves of the shell, allowing the slimy white to fall into the bowl, just as my grandmother taught me?
I’m not sure who is most responsible for Sophia’s adeptness in the kitchen, which generation of mothers in our family most influenced her ways. This is what I cherish about baking, like an emulsifier, it blends generations together seamlessly. While reality t.v. threatens to bypass knowledge our grandmothers doled out slowly over years by making cooking a competition and a race, nothing beats the wisdom and instruction of previous generations.
It teaches life skills.
Boiling water, reading a recipe, measuring ingredients, proper handling of kitchen utensils, stove and oven safety, organization of the pantry, menu planning, how to make a grocery list, shelf life of ingredients, ingredient substitutions . . . All of these things can be taught anecdotally in the kitchen. And of course, the most important life lesson — how to clean up after yourself, scrub a dirty bowl, wipe down a counter, put things away.
It’s an activity that can be adapted for all ages.
Eighteen month olds can hold a spoon and attempt stirring. Two and three year olds can dip sugar out of a canister. Under close supervision, four year olds can turn on a blender and squeal with delight when the flour inadvertently explodes into a white cloud. Five year olds can help scrape the batter into the pan, then scrub out the bowl with soap and water.
Baking with small children is often messy and takes great patience on the part of the parent. Little ones don’t have to help with all the steps, just a few. Start small, and work up. Say to yourself over and over, “Messes can be cleaned up. Memories are worth the mess.” Before you know it those tiny hips at the top of the step stool turn into hips you can wrap your arm around, her young adult shoulders now even with yours as you whisper in her ear, “I’m impressed. It turned out great!”
It offers a safe place to experience failure.
You will have failures in the kitchen. You will forget to add sugar or over-salt the cookies. Your cake won’t rise or the meringues turn out gloppy, unable to hold their shape. Guess what? You can try again and achieve success. In today’s world where often everyone gets a ribbon, it’s a lesson in resilience when we can say to our children, “Well that’s inedible. Let’s throw it away and try again. Wonder what we can do differently this time?” At home, surrounded by family, is a safe place for our children to learn how to fail and try again.
It instills pride in our children.
When a bake is mastered, the pride on our children’s faces cannot be concealed. As each family member takes a bite, our young children experience the pride that comes from serving a product made by their own hands. Mom and Dad encourage with, “Wow! You did this!” “This is so delicious.” “I’m proud of you!” “Is there enough for seconds?”
This Christmas season, let us invite generations into the kitchen. Find the decades old, hand-written recipe cards, and ask Grandmother who first taught her how to separate an egg.
Or if the holidays have left you weary, invite your children into the kitchen to open frozen cookie dough, roll it out, and then cut out a few stars. It is time with you, not fancy ingredients, that will matter most in the end.