As we recently started a family, people assume I’m keen to get our toddler involved with baking. As much as I want to be a good father, I’m struggling slightly with this. Toddlers are just so flipping messy. Not to mention disgusting. I really don’t want a kitchen assisant who sneezes in the mixture. Or picks his nose before “helping” with the kneading.
I’ve been called many things over the years, many of them not exactly complimentary: Virgoan, control freak, anal. Thing is, if you meet a lot of chefs and bakers, many of them are control freaks. It’s almost a professional requirement. If you work in a busy kitchen, you need to control it tightly so it runs smoothly and efficiently. I’m not a professional – I think of myself as semi-amateur – but I do like the idea of running an efficient kitchen: neat, well organised, generally clean.
So bringing a toddler into this environment isn’t easy. Yes, yes, I know, baking with kids isn’t about efficiently turning out food products for sale in a restaurant or bakery – or indeed on a market stall – but I still tend to approach my baking with certain standards.
Baking with dinosaurs
So it was with some misgivings that I embarked on my first baking-with-the-kids exercise the other day. I’ve done it before with family or friends’ kids, but this felt different. This was me introducing my son, let’s call him T-rex, to something I love, and obsess over, something that’s hugely important in my life. The experience needed to be fun, and encouraging. But could I let go enough to cope with the mess, the unhygienic inclinations of toddlers, the sheer inefficiency?
Um, no, not really.
I mean, we got through it. But boy was it stressful. I mean, toddlers are control freaks too, they want to do what they want, they want to do it now, and they have no concept that throwing the flour around is messy. I try to explain that much of “making” involves getting ready at the start, then cleaning up at the end, but he gets that glazed look parents, or even standup comics, will recognise, when you’re losing your audience. I try to explain that kitchens are dangerous – hot ovens, hot pans on the stove etc – but he gets that glazed look again. Rules and instructions just aren’t fun. Waving the wood spoon and yelling “I do mix-mix now Daddy” is fun.
Most of all, it’s just hard to let go, acknowledge that cooking something on your own, and cooking something with a small child, will be very different experiences, with very different results. Results that won’t be up to your (well, my) standards. Or those of my old teacher on flour confectionary at bakery school, Tom, who insisted that products need to be consistent. Fat chance.
So obviously the abovementioned sneezing etc is unacceptable. More minor infractions I just have to let go; we’ve all licked utensils as children right? OK, OK, let it go Dan. Experienced parents will already know how to handle other areas of working with toddlers in the kitchen. So, for example, when given a cookie cutter, T-rex just gleefully shouts “Cut! Cut! Cut!” and goes over the same piece of dough repeatedly. Which isn’t much use. So you have to do that part together.
Instruction, meanwhile, has to be very basic. Very basic indeed. So when I gave T-rex a jug and said “Pour that into this bowl”, a bowl inches in front of him, he still managed to try to pour it into another bowl, just out of reach along the worktop to his right. So, not basic enough. Maybe pouring can’t be accomplished till three, or four.
Otherwise, there are a few tricks. I’ve got a small rolling pin that’s used for cake decorating; I can give this to T-rex, wtih a small lump of dough, and he can muck about to his heart’s content while I do the actual pinning out myself. Ditto, I suppose he can just squish a small lump of dough and pretend he’s helping with the kneading. Though this piece will then be too unsavoury to bake and may, sadly, wastefully, end up in the municipal compost.
So yes, T-Rex seemed to enjoy it. Every time I put my apron and hat on now, even if it’s to just heat some pasta, he says “Daddy, I do making too?” and asks for his apron and hat. It’s sweet. Sweetly infuriating. Especially when I say, “No, why don’t you play in the garden for a bit”. But perhaps I am instilling him with a love of cooking, of baking – even if I’m not exactly being gracious about it.