When I was a child I was always underfoot in the kitchen, at first playing with the Tupperware cupboard or hiding under the cutting board, then later asking mOm question after question or helping stir or peel carrots and potatoes.
By age 7, mOm gave me samples of sugar and salt to examine under my microscope and explained the scientific mechanics of how cooking worked.
We baked together, turning out cakes, cupcakes and muffins, and my favorite – brownies. I learned how to measure, mix and fold, how to pour, scrape and spread. When mOm took an advanced cake decorating class her baking took an incredible turn. We would spend hours with cookie sheets, boxes of tips, frosting nails and a big pot of buttercream frosting and practiced swirls, whorls, scalloped edging, roses, vines and basketweaves. We made royal icing flowers to be added to future cakes and decorated individual sugar cubes for an elegant accompaniment to a lady’s coffee service. We molded sugar and egg whites into massive hollow Easter dioramas filled with grass made from dyed coconut, Easter candy and flowers. And bunnies.
I was the envy of every kid on the block with my gorgeous, better-than-a-bakery decorated birthday cakes. Valentines Day and Christmas cookies were edible works of art, and the Halloween cupcakes were things of legend: arching black cats, grinning Jack O’Lanterns, scary witches with warty noses and ghosts that you could almost hear wailing, “Wooooo!!!”
The culmination of our baking was the Bicentennial block party. Instead of everyone celebrating with fireworks and sparklers in our own backyards as per usual, the block got permission from the city to close the street and we had an all day/all night (almost) celebration of our great country’s 200th birthday.
There were sack races, water balloon tosses, a parade of all of us kiddies on our bikes or trikes, rollerskates and strollers. All the moms contributed gorgeous dishes for a potluck and the dads rolled out the grills to the sidewalk and fired up the coals. We had a costume contest and I won 3rd place! When it was finally dark enough everyone lit off their fireworks in the *front* yard! The culmination of the party for us kids, besides the sparklers and piccolo Petes and growing cinder worms, was dessert.
Mom made a huge flag cake. It was so large she borrowed a commercial oven at a bakery to bake the cake. It seemed as big as a standard flag to me, acres and acres of rippling red and white stripes, and sparking white stars against that perfect blue field. It fed absolutely everybody and more and it was delicious!
Watching and helping my mom gave me loads of confidence in the kitchen. Seeing her look at a picture in a Wilton book and then reproduce it was a revelation. I would point to a picture and ask, “Can you do this?”, and then watch, wide-eyed, as she made it come to life with her cool hands and deft manipulations with the pastry bag.
With my best bud, Margo, one Saint Patrick’s Day I decided I would just go ahead and make my first cake. I pulled out the Old Redoubtable – Joy of Cooking.
I set to work while Margo perched on the kitchen stool. The KitchenAid, tons of measuring cups, mounds of spoons and mixing bowls were pressed into action. There was flour and batter and frosting everywhere, I remember having to use half a bottle of Mop N Glow on the floor to get the stickiness up.
If only I had a picture of this creation… Please imagine a white layer cake with white buttercream frosting and green shamrocks and borders. Naturally, I flavored the frosting with lots of mint extract, because to my little baker’s brain, mint tasted green. It was lumpy and childishly piped, but I was 8 and thought it was simply gorgeous.
How perfectly dreadful it must have been, tasting like mouthwash! But my family never let on and ate it with gusto, if I recall correctly. I was so proud. And now, in hindsight, I feel so grateful to my family for their kindness and encouragement.
My next attempt at cooking for my family was much more successful, and edible. Stay tuned next Monday!