Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why I Bake

Every Christmas, I bake an enormous amount of cookies and candy. I eat a few cookies. My husband and children eat some, too. I give away most of them. Yesterday morning, as I baked three batches of cookies (Molasses Crinkles, MaryAnns, and Chocolate Chip), I asked myself: why do I do this? 

I bake to stay connected to my grandmother, my first baking teacher. I started baking with my grandmother when I was five or six. When I make her sugar cookies or Molasses Crinkles or Hot Air candy—I think about her and her great love for me. Here's a short excerpt from my memoir about our ritual: 

In the summer evenings, we’d bake sugar cookies together. Her kitchen, a buttery yellow made dingy by years of smoking and frying, would be hot with the heat. A fan, turned backwards in the window, blew the warm air out. She’d drink coffee and smoke as I measured and mixed, using her ancient white kitchen aid mixer. Then, I’d roll the dough into balls and flatten them with a crystal glass dipped in sugar. Next would come the baking—10 minutes per pan. As I waited for the edges to brown, I’d watch the smoke from her cigarette swirl around and out the window. Once when my great Aunt was over, drinking coffee and talking about grown-up things, I listened in. My great Aunt caught my wandering attention and warned, “Watch that girl, she’s not paying attention, she’ll burn them, she’ll burn them.” My grandma laughed, “Don’t worry. She’s doing just fine.”

When I look back on that day, I'm amazed at my grandmother. I was ten! How could she know I wouldn't burn the cookies? My grandma's profound trust in me as a tiny baker girl has given me great confidence. Those are happy memories for me. Science tells us that whenever we savor happy memories—something I do each time I bake—we feel happier right now.

I bake to create happy memories with my children. My daughter loves to bake with me. I can already see the pride and confidence that baking gives her. My son seems to be most interested in the cookies, hovering over us every step of the process asking, "Are they ready yet? Can I have one?" Whatever their connection to the ritual, I hope that our baking creates happy memories for my children to savor. 

I bake because I need happy endings. Life is anything but predictable. In the past few years, both of my children have experienced challenges. This past February, my young daughter was diagnosed with failure to thrive and put on a feeding tube. After a year of not growing, she finally gained weight and height! Yes! Now that we know she can grow, we need to figure out how to get her to eat on her own. It's a challenging and unpredictable process. She might eat successfully one day but get sick from the same food on the next day. 

On the hardest days, I find myself in the kitchen—my daughter by my side—measuring and pouring, mixing and scooping. Baking provides a taste of predictability that soothes us. Throw the right amount of ingredients into the mixer, scoop, bake—and like magic, we have a little baked gem. But better than that, my anxiety over this little girl's eating has disappeared into the joy of working together on a shared project. 

Readers, think about your own lives. List the rituals that allow you to:
  • savor happy memories
  • build confidence
  • create happy moments
  • experience the joy of predictability
  • connect with those you love
In this season of short days and long dark nights, practice the rituals that bring you hope and happiness and joy! 

For those of you who want to bake, I've included a link to one of my favorite baking cookbooks. It has great information, the most amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe, and enough other treats to keep you baking and eating happily for years!


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