Baking My Heart Out

Keeping the pantry stocked with flour, sugar, chocolate chips, and lots of warm fuzzies.

“Hey, it’s me! Um, this message is for Mom. I lost the chocolate-chip cookie-bar recipe again, and we’re having people over tonight to play Book-Lovers’ Trivial Pursuit, so I need …”

“Just a minute, honey,” my mother says into the phone, interrupting the machine. She puts the phone down, and I know she is trundling across the kitchen to retrieve her thick stash of index cards.

I grew up in a house brimming with cookies and pies, a kitchen warmed by sweet smells — but I turned out to be a late-blooming baker.

I had dozens of Barbies and Cabbage Patch dolls as a child, but I never wanted an Easy Bake Oven. I dimly recall a Disney cookbook, but I never got past the spaghetti-with-meatballs recipe featuring a completely adorable picture from “Lady and the Tramp.” My only contribution to my mom’s brownies was licking batter from the spoon. (Salmonella is just a myth, right?) When Mom decorated sugar cookies at Christmas and the bunny cake at Easter, my sisters were far more interested than I in the sprinkling and icing, in the deliberate placement of jelly beans and shredded coconut to form the bunny’s ears.

As for my cooking, ask my friends about the time they visited me during winter break and I served them canned soup and a microwaved hotdog. That was the full extent of my culinary expertise. And I was downright puzzled about how to cook the hotdog.

It wasn’t until after college that I decided I liked cooking and loved, loved baking. My roommates and I entertained quite a bit, and I have a gigantic sweet tooth; I can’t conceive of parties and get-togethers without brownies or cookies or muffins — or, better yet, all three. Tortilla chips and salsa just don’t do it for me. And carrot sticks? Ha.

But I grew up in a house where buying those baked goods was unheard of. In fact, my poor fiancé discovered the strength of my feelings on this subject recently when, innocently walking through the freezer aisle of our local supermarket, he pointed to some tasty-looking pies thoughtfully frozen for our convenience by Mrs. Smith and suggested that we buy one for our party. Aghast, I was rendered momentarily speechless by his perfidy. But only momentarily. I soon delivered a ringing monologue on the gall of even suggesting such a thing.

I like feeding people. I think it’s in my veins, directly from my mother’s heart. When I was a teenager, she’d makes brownies when my friends came over, send peanut-butter fudge along with me to play practice, make my favorite cake (vanilla with white icing and strawberries) for my birthday. When my little sister wants a snack at 10 p.m., my mom makes her cupcakes. She bakes birthday cakes for her colleagues and shares them at morning meetings. She has hundreds of recipes, amassed over the years from magazines, coworkers, neighbors and family. As she watches her videotape of the day’s “The Young & the Restless,” she pores over Women’s Day and Family Circle, then meticulously transcribes the recipes onto fluorescent index cards in her big, looping handwriting, pasting pictures of delectable things onto the back.

I love these hand-me-down recipes the most, and my friends have come to love them, too. My mom’s chocolate-chip pumpkin muffin recipe has become my specialty; it’s always a hit. Not all recipes go so smoothly: I often call my mother in the midst of a baking crisis to clarify what I’ve done wrong. I tried twice this summer to make a strawberry pie and ended up with an inedible gelatinous mess both times.

But when I’m successful, baking makes me feel nurturing. I love the sweet vanilla or rich chocolate smells that permeate the whole apartment and make it feel like home. I like presenting cookies and cakes to my guests, or cheering up my coworkers with a tray of muffins on a random Wednesday. It makes me feel like my mom. I could just go out and buy the cookies, and there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that. But it makes me happy to do it myself. It is worth my time, my effort, and the inevitable flouring of the entire kitchen. It’s a labor of love.

Of course, it’s not all selfless. I eat three or four of the dozens of Rolos I unwrap for the Rolo cookies. I remove one batch of cookies from the oven and sample the gooey chocolaty goodness — to make sure they’re suitable for guests, of course. I fill the mixing bowl with soapy water, but not before licking the spoon clean. (And see? No salmonella yet!)

Article © 2006 by Jessica Emanuel