In my world, schedule has a flexible meaning–meaning that I have no semblance of what most people consider to be an actual schedule. It’s predictably unpredictable. And, the only thing I can count on 100%, is that if my kids have a special something happening during the school day, I’ll have a last minute audition or job. We have a saying in my world: “Book a vacation, book a job.” And the same logic applies to being “Mommy of the Day”.
Some weeks, I am running around New York City at dizzying speeds, and others I am puttering around New Jersey waiting for my phone to ring. But, if there’s something in the calendar, like a doctor’s appointment that has been scheduled 2 months in advance, rest assured, the calls will start coming in. It’s delicately controlled chaos.
Surprisingly enough, I tend to function considerably better, during the busy times. I like to feel needed, I love to work, and I have found that it helps me to be a nicer mommy, when I miss my kids a little bit, here & there. When there is a break in the scurry, when my schedule grinds to a halt, my mind has a minute to start worrying if my career has finally run its course, and if I have made the wrong choice by being a working mom, in the first place. During those down times, it gets loud in my head–crazy loud and down right messy.
Baking is a ritual that has the power to quiet me down. There’s solace in the act of turning a pile of browning bananas into a delicious afternoon snack. You rummage through the kitchen finding seemingly disparate items that are inedible on their own: flour, baking soda, baking powder, raw eggs, butter and sugar (ok–the last two can totally be eaten on their own), mix them together in a certain measured order, and end up with magic…delicious, warm, crusty magic.
Inevitably at least one child will ask to help & voila–it’s meaningful family time. There’s attention required, there’s a method–a method to the madness. And that’s what I’m always looking for, something to make meaning. Meaning puts me right.
Baking can also save a play date that’s heading South. Give the kids a job, measuring, mixing, or cracking an egg–and you may have a mess on your hands, but you have saved the sinking ship. And now, there’s a snack on the way. I have yet to meet a kid that will not eat what he or she just made with their own hands. In my experience, after the cooperation required to mix up the batter, after the spoons and beaters have been licked, the camaraderie returns long enough for a little playtime before the goodies come out of the oven.
Food is a big deal in my family. It’s not only a ritual, but a right of passage. The annual Christmas cookie baking, is the stuff of legend. The cookies trace back, at least as far as my German Great Grandmother Emma, on my father’s father’s side. She passed it down to my Grandmom Ginny, who taught it to my dad–and so forth. This recipe takes a full day, from mixing to chilling, to rolling & decorating. It always starts out a joyous adventure, and by the time the last batch comes out of the oven, someone has always stomped off in a huff. But they are delicious & well worth the trouble. Wafer thin, with a hint of nutmeg, and sometimes a spray of cinnamon sugar, they have a great crunch & a flavor that unfolds as you chew. The dough is also fantastic. In the early years, I was Dad’s helper. But as the time has gone by and I moved away, my sister & cousin have taken over the mantel of the cookies, at Dad’s house. Now, I bake my own and we always save a few to compare & contrast.
And then, there’s my Grandmother’s poundcake. Grandmom baked dozens of different holiday cookies, a number of pies, and was always good for a train-cake for a kid’s birthday party. But, if her memory could be distilled into one dessert, it would certainly be her pound cake. This cake is legendary, weighing in at about 5 lbs. It makes it’s own entrance. Always delivered in the same silver domed cake plate, the pound cake is still a staple at any Nasteff family gathering. Only, I am the one who brings it now. When you see the silver cake plate, you know exactly what’s inside. Proust had his Madeline, and I have that pound cake. It’s an enormous bundt, golden brown, with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. And, the yellowy inside is dense, with a deep flavor of butternut, vanilla, and amaretto. That cake is love on a plate. The poundcake now has a reputation here in NJ, as I have started bringing it as dessert to progressive dinners and pot-luck affairs. It’s even been auctioned off to benefit our school.
Making that poundcake is an immediate way for me to reconnect with Grandmom. She died 7 years ago, but I swear I transmit her frequency, every time I make that recipe. It’s her cake, I just open up the channel, and let her do her good work through my hands.
The conscience act of slowing down to prepare something from scratch, for me, is almost always as good as a therapy session or a great yoga class. To feel the various textures of the ingredients, the slick greasy slide of the butter, the grainy abrasive feel of the sugar, the fluffy powder of the dry concoction. To hear the droney rhythm of the mixer as it melds the components together. To smell the aroma as it seeps out of the oven. And, finally to taste the delicious result. It’s a tangible thing to do. It adds up to something real.
What you have in the end is food–beautiful heart food, that smells up the house in the best possible way, that lights up the eyes of the kids in only the way a fresh pan from the oven can do, and that quiets the chaos for long enough to enjoy a pure blissful moment of yummy togetherness, with those at your table, and even with those who are now in the beyond.
And then…onto the dishes. Messy Beautiful.