Our 13-year-old son has a career plan: Zack’s going to open a pie restaurant, where both the main dish of pizzas and the desserts that follow will arrive on diners’ tables in that classic round shape.
While he’s not getting any breaks on his regular school subjects, I’m always looking for ways to give him lessons in a different sort of classroom. That instruction happens in our kitchen, which has become the modern hearth in our home. Since he’s
been old enough to pull a stepstool up to the counter and grab a spoon, he’s pitched in as sous chef, willing to help with any dish, but especially eager to prep a cake batter.
Growing up, I had my turn to learn in my grandmother’s kitchen, where one summer week was dedicated to showing me how to make her trademark sweet egg bread, which she baked several times a week. After my first loaf had cooled and we cut into it, I remember getting upset about the size of the bubbles in each slice, but she told me that was a good thing, that I had succeeded in getting the yeast to really do its job and get that bread to rise. Maybe she was telling me the truth, but she still wouldn’t let me tackle a loaf of her white bread, which required a more experienced touch, first in assembling and then in kneading the dough.
All I need today is a whiff of fresh-baked bread and I’m standing back in my grandmother’s kitchen, sitting at her pink chrome dinette set that was the real deal, not some retro recast. Those are memories that I’m trying to build with my children, where an aroma or a bite-sized taste can recall a moment and bring out a smile.
When cooking for someone, it’s a way to say with food what we don’t always feel comfortable saying with words. Going a step further by encouraging my children to join me in the kitchen helps them understand how we can nourish our connections. Whether my son actually becomes a food professional down the road or not, Zack is getting deep insights into the food traditions that have shaped who he is – something that becomes even more meaningful during these closing months of the calendar.
Tastes for the Season
As the fall air has turned crisp, our taste buds are eager to trade those garden-fresh greens with earthier flavors that we haven’t tapped into for a year, like cinnamon and nutmeg, deep caramel, and roasted chilies. My oven has been churning out autumn standards such as pumpkin bread (from my mother’s recipe, of course) and apple cake for a month now. I’ve found that baking is the perfect way to introduce cooking techniques to my kids, as many recipes can be easily assembled and you only need to wait a few minutes for the finished product.
This also is the season that bridges from the High Holy Days in my husband’s Jewish faith to Christmas, a cornerstone of my Catholic upbringing. We’re raising our daughter and son to embrace both faiths, and food becomes a tangible way to help understand what can be cryptic themes for young minds. What we discovered as most ironic is that both of our families have deep roots in Eastern Europe (and I have a few other branches into Italy and Great Britain).
My late father-in-law was always prodding me to try some Jewish delicacy, maybe some borscht or pickled herring. What he never believed was that my dad’s mother cooked many of those same dishes. I still won’t touch borscht, and I won’t expect my kids to either, but I’m happy to enjoy our shared heritage of pierogi, a circle of dough usually filled with potato, then folded over, crimped, and boiled or stir-fried.
Today, my children recognize the foods that practically prescribed for each Jewish holiday, nothing more precise than the limits on the Passover table. My daughter’s favorite Jewish holiday might be Rosh Hashanah, because she loves that we serve apples and honey in hopes for a sweet new year.
While I won’t be replicating the recipe my husband’s grandmother used for chopped liver, I am teaching my children other recipes that bring those traditions to life and how to make them their own. For example, each Hanukkah, we prepare several batches of rugelach, cookies made with a cream-cheese dough, usually filled with jam and nuts. We’ve devised our own family favorites over the years, giving top billing to a version with black raspberry jam and mini chocolate chips.
Over at the stove, the latke-making is an all-hands-on-deck undertaking, as we divvy up responsibilities for shredding potatoes and onions. Again, we’re devising new flavors to update this classic Hanukkah side dish, fried to symbolize the oil that burned for eight days in the temple. Today, you can count on sweet potato or garlic renditions.
And when we find a holiday where the traditions aren’t as clear-cut, we’re happy to make up some of our own. Remember Thanksgivvukkah – when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah collided in 2013? Our table included a turkey-shaped challah – with Zack helping to form the dough feathers – and pecan-pie rugelach, which has reappeared since then.
Baking New Traditions
On my side of the family, I remember how my mother started baking Christmas cookies right after Thanksgiving. My sister and I would come home from school each day to find another tin filled with a new batch, with none so anticipated as her cookie press flowers that she accented with red and green icing to resemble a poinsettia. She kept a running list of what and how many she’d baked, watching the bottom line grow by the dozens in both variety and output.
When Jon and I married, and I moved a day’s drive from my hometown, I planned to bake my first batch of holiday cookies, as we were hosting my parents in Nashville. The thought of a Christmas without cookies – even if I did have my parents – was something I didn’t want to consider. Mom brought some cookies too, and we had managed to make the same ones from a new cookie magazine.
Today, I’ve taken on that cookie tradition, though I’m tracking my supplies and totals on a modern Excel spreadsheet. My children can’t wait to help with their favorite: a rich chocolate butter cookie rolled in holiday-colored sprinkles, with a Hershey’s Kiss plopped in the middle right after the hot cookies exit the oven. Last year, the overall total raced to 345 dozen, including forty varieties.
That’s 4,140 cookies – most of which left our house in deliveries, a little love made with sugar.
In our time-crazed world, something homemade from scratch shows you care, shows you value the people around you. The recipe itself might be very simple, both in ingredients and instructions, but you’re making room in your day to give a little bit of yourself. That’s the biggest lesson I want my kids to take away from their time with me in the kitchen.
And that’s why our holiday baking season culminates with an afternoon with some of our closest family friends. Just before Christmas, we hand our kids – the eldest of whom will graduate from high school this spring while the youngest are in middle school – plates piled high with fresh-baked sugar cookies cut in holiday shapes, bowls of buttercream icing tinted yellow, red, and green, and every possible container of sprinkles and colored sugar
I can find.
For an hour of two, they decorate cookies, eat half of their creations, and file away some of their sweetest memories of the year.
Photos: loren Rosado