I don’t actually remember being taught to bake from scratch – it just seems to have spontaneously happened at some point when I was a small kid. I must’ve learned by helping in the kitchen like most kids do. But I was pretty young when my mother let me go it alone with a recipe. Like they say, if it doesn’t kill you…
One of my earliest memories of baking was actually with my Nanny who lived next door to us in Bronxville. I was pretty little at the time – I had to stand on a chair next to her at her kitchen counter and we made a birthday cake for my mother. She let me choose what kind of cake to make and how to decorate it. I chose a bright pink fuchsia colored sherbet for the filling between the three layers.
We made a white icing for the outside of the cake and she let me decorate it with bright lime green icing piped around the edges – it was in retrospect really awful looking – but Nanny let me have full creative control. Because we used sherbet between the layers we had to keep it cool before dinner, so we put it out her dining room window onto a box on the backyard patio (my mother’s birthday is in January).
I don’t remember much of anything about the birthday dinner held at Nanny’s, just the cake. When the time came for the majestic confection to make its appearance, Nanny opened the window and cried out loud – the layers had slipped and smooshed onto the concrete patio. Oh the tears – the defeat – the cruelty of the universe… this was my first cake for my Mommy and it was a disaster. Nanny calmed me as she retrieved the layers and put it back together along with some newly added dirt and smudged lime green icing and sherbet. My mother graciously said she loved it and everyone ate it… but it was a sad affair for me.
Live and learn.
My first solo baking projects were cookies – I cut out sugar cookies of hearts and frosted them pink to take to school for Valentine’s Day. I made Sand Tarts, dusted with cinnamon and sugar for Christmas. I made peanut butter cookies and chocolate chip cookies.
But there is one cookie that I especially enjoyed making – and its great for little hands – Snickerdoodles. When I was little I probably ate more raw Snickerdoodles while I rolled the balls of dough, than baked ones!
I soon graduated to more complex baking projects.
One summer when I was maybe 10, I decided to make brownies. By this time I was left to my own devices in the kitchen – my mother was off doing something in the basement – probably her book making, or sewing, or some other interesting thing. I pulled all the ingredients from the cupboard and carefully mixed the batter and in it went into the oven – my mouth watering at the smell of the chocolate baking.
So out came the brownies at the right time and they sat on the kitchen table to cool. My father had also been drooling over the smell apparently, as he was first into the kitchen to try the first brownie. I was so proud. Then he bit into it and his face changed from delight to something else. He said nothing, but I knew there was something wrong so I tasted my brownie. I had used 2 cups of salt instead of sugar and they were inedible… though my father pretended they were delicious and he actually ate the whole thing.
I cried… all that effort and anticipation – and then, such defeat. I never made that mistake again.
Another momentous occasion was when I was baking alone in the kitchen one summer’s day (I was probably 10 or 11) while my father was in his studio, and my mother was somewhere else – and though I don’t remember what I was making I do remember that I was using the stand mixer. The batter was pulling up the sides of the bowl and not getting beaten so I took a spoon while it was running and attempted to push it down. What happened next was a shock – the spoon and my hand were grabbed into the beaters and jammed the machine to a halt. I screamed in pain. My father was the first to the scene with my mother close behind. My hand was mangled. They carefully checked each finger and ran their hands gently over my painful wounds. It was bleeding on every knuckle and joint – the whole hand was bruised – but it was not broken.
We had no medical insurance (not until we moved to Canada) and a trip to the doctor or the hospital was costly, so my father made a splint for my hand and my parents gently attached it to my hand so it lay flat. I was in shock I suppose. I don’t remember anything after that – I probably was taken to my room to watch television and given an aspirin – the usual thing that my parents treated everything with.
It didn’t scar me for life – at least emotionally – I went back to using the mixer soon after that and I’d learned my lesson. I always turn off the mixer before attempting to scrape down the sides, even to this day.
By the time we moved to Canada to the red farmhouse in Jolicure when I was 12, I was already a seasoned baker.
Through my teens, I worked my way through almost every cake, pudding, pie, squares and cookie recipe in the Joy of Cooking.
I had a lot of time alone, especially during the summers, and a good appetite from all my outdoors activities and gardening work, so I fed myself with goodies… and my father in particular enjoyed the regular surprises from the cookbook. I learned to make meringues, tortes, 7 minute icing – you name it.
I still love to bake, but now that I’m spreading with age and watching my weight the occasions are much less frequent.
When my kids were small and were in skating, gymnastics, and hap-ki-do – I had many coaches and teachers to gift at Christmas and so I baked and decorated literally hundreds of cookies each Christmas (I also gave them to the paper delivery man, the garbage men, the pharmacists and the neighbors – I must’ve been crazy, and I surely had more stamina then!).
This is our family recipe for Snickerdoodles:
1 cup soft butter
1.5 cups sugar
2 and 3/4 cups sifted flour
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp soda
1/2 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Sift dry ingredients together. Cream butter and sugar. Mix ingredients by hand. Chill dough and roll into balls the size of small walnuts.
Roll the dough balls in a mixture of 2 tbsp sugar and 2 tsp cinnamon. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 8 to 10 minutes until lightly browned but still soft.