Our seven year old daughter gave me a gift this Christmas that continues to impress me, not because of the gift itself, but because of her reason for giving it.
I am a baker. I have loved to bake since I first stood on a wooden gray stool next to my mom and felt chocolate chip cookie dough stiffen as I stirred flour into it. As I matured as a baker, I became interested in learning more about the science behind baking, about ingredients, and about how to make baked goods even better. I’ve collected bread and pastry books over the years, and have deepened my understanding of yeast doughs, but more recently, I have expressed often, and to whomever will listen, that I’d really like to understand cakes and desserts better. Hint hint.
So I was thrilled when I ripped the shiny red paper off of our daughter’s gift to me. She sat at my knee with her hands clasped, and her eyes glittered above her “I hope you like it!” grin. The gift was Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. I oohed and aahed and hugged our daughter, laughing with her infectious excitement, as her dad explained that they had done tons of research trying to find a good baking book, and that apparently this Maida Heatter was THE woman for baked desserts. None of us had ever heard of her, but I was touched by the amount of thought that had gone into this gift.
I thumbed through the recipes and our daughter climbed into the chair with me. “Thank you, sweetie,” I said, and kissed the top of her head.
“You’re welcome, Mommy.” She put her arms around me and said, “I got you this because I really want to bake with you.”
I stopped thumbing and looked at her sweet, earnest face. I thought of all the times she asked to help in the kitchen, and all the times I was too rushed, or too uptight about measuring the flour myself. I thought about her putting on her apron just to tear open packets for her Easy Bake Oven, and the glee she felt every time I asked her to measure the sugar or crack an egg for real baking.
“I would love that, baby.” And I meant it. Though she didn’t realize it, her desire to bake with me, after all my crabbiness and stinginess in the kitchen, was her true gift. She was giving me an opportunity to slow down and teach her the art of baking. An opportunity to learn it myself. An opportunity to spend time with my daughter, doing something we both love.
Since that day, we have made an orange chocolate loaf cake, two kinds of brownies, a chocolate pumpkin cake, and our most recent creation, a chocolate-marbleized cheesecake. All from this mysterious woman’s cookbook. Because of the depth of our daughter’s gift, I make sure to make an event of baking these creations together. I say yes when she asks, “Can I measure the vanilla? Can I do the mixer? Can I separate the eggs?”
She now adds fractions in her head, knows you can make 3/4 of a cup by either using a half cup plus a quarter cup or three quarter cup measures, and can tell you why you use a double boiler to melt chocolate. She knows she must be exact with flour, baking soda, and baking powder, but that vanilla is just for flavor, not for chemistry, and so it’s okay if you dump a little more. She uses caution when reaching over burners to turn on the oven, knows to turn pot handles so they don’t hang over the edge, loves to melt chocolate.
And if someone asks her what she wants to be when she grows up? She says, “An artist or,” be still my heart, “A pastry chef.”
As for me, I am learning, too. About baking, yes, but even more than that. With this gift, our daughter has taught me to teach her. To allow. To say yes. She has opened me to taking risks. To letting her measure the flour, the salt, the vanilla. To letting her get close enough to feel the heat of the stove and the oven. To let her spill, and wipe up her mess.
For our seven year old daughter, I am learning to let go, a little bit, of control.
From our seven year old daughter, I am learning how to trust.
When my foodie friend was over, she did a double take when she saw the new addition to our cookbooks. “Oh my God! Maida Heatter!” She grabbed the manual and studied the cover. “My old boss at Delightful Bitefuls – remember? the catering company in Athens? – she used to always talk about ‘Maeeda Heeta’ this and ‘Maeeda Heeta’ that.” My friend flipped the book over and read the reviews. “So that’s how you spell her name. I could never figure it out to find her cookbooks. And here she is.”