Last Thursday was the last in a rapid-fire line of birthdays in our household, five in a row: Isaac in September, William in October, Jacob in November, Jon in early December and then Owen four days later. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam – and oh-so-inconveniently close to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
I’ve written before about embracing the good-enough birthday, so you probably have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things I didn’t do: magicians, clowns and ponies; whole-classroom parties. Here’s another to add to the list: I didn’t bake birthday cakes from scratch. In fact, these days I don’t bake much of anything from scratch.
I used to have dreams of one day becoming an excellent baker. In fact, in my younger, less-kitchen-confident ways, I appreciated the strict rules that go along with making cookies or cakes: I figured that, as long as I followed a recipe’s measurements to a tee, I couldn’t help but turn out something edible. Not so for cooking, which confused me with multiple unfamiliar terms and techniques that just seemed far too open to interpretation for my comfort level.
But somewhere around the third kid, I guess I threw my hands up in defeat. Baking proved itself too fussy, too needy, too rules-oriented for my rather messy, free-spirited, easily-distracted ways. My rule-bending tendencies balked at weighing ingredients: I found myself thriving in the world of a pinch of this and a glug of that.
That’s not to say every recipe I’ve ever cooked has turned out wonderfully, but I’ve found that by trial and error, I could instinctively start to guess how much vinegar or oil or salt or sugar to add to a recipe without creating a small disaster. Not so with a baked good. (I have never been able to judge, say, a precise cup of flour on instinct.)
I still make quick breads from scratch for two reasons: I’m usually making those to use up excess bananas, apples, or zucchini, and I find quick bread recipes to be pretty forgiving. I also make chocolate-chip cookies from scratch most of the time because I’ve got the recipe committed to memory.
But for pretty much everything else? The classroom-party cupcakes, the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie crusts, the birthday cakes, the Christmas Eve Santa cookies?
I make ‘em from a mix.
And honestly, I’ve had great luck with mixes for most things. Chocolate cakes come out moist and tasty. Sugar cookies taste…sugary. Brownies? Fudgy and delectable. Maybe not on the same level of amazing as my sister-in-law Kelley’s yearly holiday offering of home-baked treats, but, well…good enough.
Yes, I know those baking mixes are probably full of preservatives and unnatural ingredients. But we don’t eat baked treats very often, so really? I’m OK with that.
But there is something so quintessentially motherly about the concept of baking, that you can start to feel a little like a cheater when you take the easy way out. After all, what better way to show your child you care than by lovingly crafting a dessert from only the purest ingredients?
When I hear moms of soon-to-be one-year-olds comparing healthy cake recipes and I realized that even for that first birthday I’ve always just pulled out the Duncan Hines or Pillsbury box, it’s tempting to wonder if I showed my baby enough love with my frosted offering.
Which, of course, is misguided. Certainly I might not set down my birthday cakes with the same prideful relish as a mom who’s just created a true work of art, but when I present my kids with a plate of cookies and a hug, I promise you they feel loved and nurtured (and hungry) whether or not the cookies came from a slice-and-bake tube.
On the other hand, it’s just as misguided for those of us who don’t bake (and maybe feel a wee bit guilty about it, in some deep dark unexplored part of our psyches) to disparage those who love to bake, take great satisfaction from baking, or who are just naturally good at the discipline and art of making a perfect chocolate cake.
I’ve heard moms say, defensively, “I don’t have time for that” when talking about baking from-scratch cupcakes or rolling out a pie crust, but from their tone, what they’re really saying is, “I have better things to do.”
And what does that say about the women who find great satisfaction in creating a flaky pie crust?
The truth is that there are no ‘better’ things to do. There are only the things that fulfill us, that make the best use of our natural talents and tendencies.
For me, at this moment of my life, regular baking is not one of those things. But perfecting my pot roast recipe is. Rolling out pie crust is not one of those things. But pouring quiche filling – because finally, I’ve found something all my kids love! – into a pre-made pie crust from the refrigerator section is.
It applies to other areas of our lives, too, doesn’t it? I don’t read a book at bedtime every night (I find something about the tongue-twisting cadence of children’s books unbearable when I’m tired.) But I’ll make up story after story out of my own head.
I don’t have much patience for knock-knock jokes. But I’ll help a kid write a limerick.
I can’t abide Candyland. But I’ll play endless rounds of Old Maid with you, even if you aren’t quite old enough to grasp the rules.
I don’t do Elf on a Shelf. But I’ll put on the Santa tracker and Christmas carols every night for two weeks straight.
We all have unique talents, and enough time to pursue the things that matter to us the most. The trick is not to feel we need to disparage or demean other people’s talents or desires in order to make ours feel more valuable.
Because the truth is that everything we add to this world out of love or commitment to a craft or simple effort, has value. And when we all do different things, and do different things well, we make the world a richer place, collectively, for our families and ourselves.
So you know what? I don’t bake from scratch, and I’m not sure I ever will. But I do a lot of other really cool things. And if you bake from scratch, I think that’s awesome. I’ll never say it’s a waste of time, because I believe anything you pour your heart into is just about the opposite of a waste.
I am also happy to acknowledge that your cookies are probably better than mine, and in this world there is little more valuable than a really great cookie.
In fact, maybe we can bring our unique talents together sometime. I’ll bring the pot roast, you bring the homemade brownies. I’ll work your name into a limerick, and you can read a Dr. Seuss book to my kids while I clear the dinner dishes.