Sunday, February 12, 2012

Baking With Mommy

Today my two daughters and I baked and frosted cupcakes.  I love baking with my gals, the same way I used to love baking with my mother.  I have so many fond memories of bonding over the chemistry and aromas of the kitchen.  (I also have a few scars from the times I tried to go it alone and surprise the family with some fancy concoction I found in the French cookbook my father had bought my mother for their anniversary one year.  (Nothing says romance like a cookbook.  It is better, I suppose, than the commemorative pope plate he bought her years later even though we’re NOT Catholic, but that’s another story.  My father is actually quite romantic, in his own way.)

My brother and sister and I would salivate over the full color pictures from that French tome: Crème Brulee, Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Éclairs, Apple Tarte Tatin, and Cherry Clafoutis.  We would beg my mother to make these arduous concoctions, imagining our dining room set up as a boulangerie with cake platters and cookie trays and chocolate fondues, taking up every available table surface. 

While my father loved to buy my mother cookbooks as gifts (and still does), we usually stuck with the German tried and true recipes that my Oma had taught my mother: the most commonly made were pfeffernusse, or peppernuts, the older and harder and crunchier the better; Katerinchens, a firm spicy cookie that was both practical and satisfied a sweet tooth, yet didn’t over do it.  Both were excellent for dunking in the tea we always had after our evening meals. 

In this day and age it’s hard to believe, but my mother baked nearly every day.  (She still does!)  She usually got started in the evening, after she had made the meal, cleaned up afterward, maybe weeded the garden for a while and had prepared our lunches for the next day.  

When the rest of us had thrown in the towel and were clustered around the console TV, my mother would be in the kitchen mixing up a storm: batter being whisked, eggs cracking, and the Mixmaster awhirr.  Even in winter, our house was always warm in the evenings and full of spicy smells. 

The amazing thing is, my mother did this cheerfully and with pleasure.  It seemed her idea of relaxing was rolling up her sleeves and getting out the rolling pin as compared to our idea which was sprawling out on the green shag rug and watching reruns of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. 

My mother’s cheerful flurry of evening activity meant that our evenings often consisted of a lovely, warm snack before bedtime as well. It may be why, to this day, I can’t seem to spend an evening without a snack (or ten) in hand: I’ve been predisposed and habituated to it by a loving, industrious mother who couldn’t keep herself out of the kitchen. 

For special occasions, my mother would bake her famous many layered Napoleon torte, each layer consisting of a pancakey yet flakey pastry, with custardy cream spread between each and doused over the whole lot.  A piece of that cake is like a hearty meal in itself and it could sit in your stomach like a Thanksgiving dinner does, too.  Delicious, heavy goodness.  Another specialty of my mother’s was bienenstick (bee sting) cake, which boasted a sugary-almond crunchy crust and a vanilla pudding filling. 

If you know the biblical story of the loaves and the fishes, you know what it was like at our house.  On Sundays, as we grew older, we would often end up with a cluster of teenagers at our house midafternoon and invariably my mother would start pulling out a multitude of wholesome baked goods that she had stashed away in the freezer, in the cupboard, in tightly sealed jars, and secreted away in layers of wax paper in Tupperware containers.  They spilled out everywhere and there was always a surplus.  There were butterhorns and cinnamon buns, cookies and cakes and squares and bars.  And then there were the jars of canned peaches and cherries and plums and the frozen strawberries and blueberries and raspberries that she would thaw and mix with sugar and pour over big bowls of ice cream.  Our house was like the gingerbread house in the countryside that housed every sweet delight one could conjure up.

Around Christmas all the stops were pulled out and about a month before the big day, Omi and my mother got baking.  My grandparents had a mudroom in the front of their house that had long ago been converted into a larder where all the baked goods were stored.  It was the one part of the house that was unheated and when you opened the door to it, you would be greeted with a blast of cold air and the aroma of spices and orange and chocolate chip cookies.  In the Christmas season, our noses would be assaulted with the smells of lebkuchen and syrup platz and linzer torten.  Was that a Frankfurter Kranz sitting under the Tupperware clear bell? It was like heaven in a room.  Just closing my eyes and taking a deep inhale now brings me back to that very special room that smacked of love and happiness. 

These days my mom and dad often bake together, and my dad has taken over in the bread making department, making a delicious array of creative, hearty rustic loaves that he throws together with abandon whenever the desires strikes him.  They love perusing cookbooks in bookstores and going through the ones they have at home.  Food and cooking is one of the strongest bonds of my parents’ marriage.  They delight in the making of it and the eating of it together.  It’s a beautiful thing that I take as a model of happiness and contentment.  They find food incredibly important, both the making and the eating of it.  It is reverent to them in a way that most people don’t understand in our fast food generation.  I admire this deeply.

For me, I still equate baking with the love of my mother and grandmother and how industriously and happily they whipped up beautiful food for their ungrateful spawn.  Like other kids of the 70s, we yearned for Oreos and Girl Guide Cookies and Hostess treats like Twinkies and Snowballs.  There were times we actually felt deprived!  In retrospect, how dare we complain or think the transfat-laden store bought goodies were in any way superior to the delights that came out of our kitchen?  Who was even aware of hydrogenated oils and red dye number three and preservatives back then?  All we knew was that the other kids had sweets that were sweeter and softer and gooier than what we were eating.  Ingrates!

I love to bake with my daughters now so they will have health(ier) treats to take with them in their lunchboxes, but mostly so that we can establish that same ritual of mother/daughter togetherness that my mother did with me.  Time in the cozy kitchen making chemistry out of baking was time that brought me closer to my mother, her roots and helped us to be together in a natural way that wasn't forced.

These days, I’m into a health food, be-kind-to-animals lifestyle so we’re experimenting with eggless, milkless concoctions.  In the last few weeks we’ve made vegan oatmeal cookies, vegan peanut butter cookies and today its vegan chocolate cupcakes. We’re just about to embark on the frosting for which we will be using soymilk among other ingredients.  It may not be traditional German baking, but it is two girls and their Mommy starting a baking tradition of their own: a tradition that brings us together to make something with love and goodwill and that teaches us that working together to create something beautiful and nourishing is also fun and memorable.

My aspirations for my daughters and the kitchen:

  • To pass on some of the special recipes that are a part of my heritage.

  • For them to spend time with their Omi, baking in her kitchen in Hope.

  • For them to learn the chemistry of cooking and how fun it can be.

  • For them to enjoy both the process and the product of their kitchen experimentation.

  • For us to spend many hours of pleasure in that place of love and warmth.

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