Thursday, November 29, 2012

Baking with Baby

It's that wonderful time of the year... time to bake! Cookie exchanges, loaves of bread for gifts, cakes and pies for family dinners... is it any wonder that I love Christmas so much? When you combine my love of eating with my love of baking, December becomes my favorite month. Not only are there more reasons to bake, I also find that people tend to be less concerned with eating sweets ("it's only once a year" or "it's a special occasion"), and therefore I can get more people to try my latest kitchen concoctions.

Of course, I bake year-round. And halfway through this year, a major obstacle to baking success entered my life: Samantha. I'm not complaining, but it is extremely difficult to bake successfully with a baby in the house. So, for anyone else who has just entered parenthood and has the urge to bake massive amounts of goodies this Christmas, I thought I'd offer a few helpful pointers for "baking with baby."

First and foremost, accept the fact your baby will need you at the least opportune time. She might nap the entire way through the preparation, but wake up - very hungry - two minutes before your cupcakes/bread/whatever is due to come out of the oven. When I am home alone, this either means dealing with an upset baby for a few extra minutes, or ruining my baked goods. When D is home, this has often turned into a situation where he brings me a batter-loaded toothpick so I can gauge the amount of time left in the oven while simultaneously nursing the baby. (Read: "It needs about two and a half more minutes." "You can tell that from a toothpick?" ... My superpowers are quite incredible, really.)

Secondly, you will need to entertain your baby. Sometimes Samantha will sit contentedly and play with her own toys, but usually she is very interested in what I'm doing. This is when passing her a clean spatula to "lick" is helpful (as I lick one of the batter-filled ones). Or letting her play with colorful cupcake wrappers. I often act out a cooking show for her. I explain each of the ingredients, its role in the baking process, and how much I'm using. I show her how to measure out flour, why it's helpful for ingredients to be room temperature, about the importance of sifting, and why we cream together butter and sugar. Sometimes, when she starts to fuss, I do this as a song and dance. This is always around the time my neighbors walk by the kitchen window.

Third, if you're the kind of person who needs to be at peace for baked goods to turn out well, accept the fact that this will never happen. Usually, baking is my time of relaxation and enjoyment. It's like making delicious science, and few things can beat it. But with an extra little person in the room who needs me - often on a schedule quite contrary to what I planned to do while baking - that time is no longer my own. And for some reason, this really affects my outcome. I don't know if I am more distracted, or not as careful, but I have ruined more baking projects with Samantha than I ever did before her. (Let's be honest, though - it's worth it.)

With all those challenges in mind, these are some helpful strategies for success:

Prep Ahead of Time
Baking a batch of cupcakes has become an all day adventure. It starts in the morning. When S is napping or reasonably happy playing by herself, I sift together all my dry ingredients on a sheet of wax paper. If she's still doing well, I measure out my butter and sugar. If we're still good, I then measure out any liquid ingredients. By the time I'm ready to begin actually mixing, I usually have everything pre-measured and ready to go. This way, my mixing time goes a lot faster.

Timing is Key
I've been playing around with the best timing for things. Even with everything measured out and ready, it still takes time to properly mix the ingredients, fill the baking cups/loaf tins/etc. And then to get them in the oven, wait the 15-45 minutes (depending on what you're making) until it's ready. And repeat if doing multiple batches. Keeping a baby happy for this long becomes a challenge. I first attempted to mix during naps, but as I mentioned before, she always woke up at the worst time. I now use nap time as "prep" time, and baking time begins immediately after she wakes up. I love on her for a few minutes, nurse her, and then get to work while she is happy, full, and well-rested. This allows me to be able to pull everything out of the oven just in time for her to take another nap. She is a quick eater, so I can usually nurse her again when things are in the oven if I start immediately.  Otherwise, I wait until everything is out and then I can nurse her to sleep.

No Baby-Wearing
Sure, when I'm making things just for me and D, I'll sometimes wear Samantha on my hip as I prepare all the ingredients. But when it's time for the oven, she goes into her bouncy seat or on the floor. I know this should go without saying, but please don't ever try wearing or holding your baby near a hot oven. Even if she's fussy. Scratch that - especially if she's fussy.

Keep It Simple
Some recipes are much easier than others. If you're home alone with baby, stick to the easy ones. If I want to complete a batch of cupcakes all in one weekday, I tend to opt for a basic flavor with a basic frosting - no frills, no special ingredients, no advance prep needed. When it's time to make things that are complicated, I wait until Samantha has gone to bed (not just a nap), and D assumes "baby duty." If Samantha wakes up and fusses, he's in charge of responding. For example, tonight I made a batch of homemade caramel sauce. This is a time-consuming process that needs constant attention, or else the sugar will burn and the sauce will be ruined. My stove top is lame, so it takes about half an hour to make a good caramel sauce. It's not possible to do with a baby needing my attention. This becomes my half hour of "baby free" time, no matter what happens. (And since D loves my salted caramel cupcakes, he is more than happy to take care of Samantha without any back-up.) For things that are slightly less complicated, but still very time-consuming (example: toasting/flaming the marshmallow topping on S'more cupcakes), I can do this while Samantha is awake but only when D is in charge. They sit in the living and play games, read books, and sometimes pop in to see what I'm up to. But they don't stay long before they are banished again. This system works well for us, even if it means that I'm staying up a little later than usual.

So, I guess with a little foresight, baking with a baby around isn't too much of a hassle. Especially if you are doing it intermittently. But if you are preparing for a big Christmas bake fest, be prepared to need help with the baby! And, of course, a big spatula for licking the bowl.