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Thursday, September 21, 2017

There is very little I hate more than baking with my kids. They fight over pouring flour into the bowl; mix things so that, inadvertently, chunks go flying; and crack eggs leaving elusive shells for me to fish out. It’s not fun, it takes three times as long with their “assistance” and it ends up being way messier. I have adopted a “Just Say No” policy.

Maybe once or twice this past year, each kid did take a turn with a specific baking project he or she decided to undertake. Some kids were more independent than others, and obviously, the less I had to do, the better. And after having to wipe up spilled sugar exactly one hour after the cleaning lady had left, I put a moratorium on all things baking. I even threw out the silicone cookie-cup molds my daughter once won as a prize, so that the kids wouldn’t ask to use them again. The cookies crumbled in the molds and butter leaked out and smothered the entire insides of my dairy oven. All food had a burnt-butter taste after that.

One of my children had a rough year this year. We watched as he came home many evenings, crushed by several situations that were beyond his control. He is sensitive, and perhaps reacts more strongly than other kids might, feeling and tasting the rich spectrum of the world to which others are muted. We view it as passion and empathy. Others viewed it as an invitation to further push into him, as entertainment. He gave a good show.

But now, it is summer vacation and those stifling classroom days are a distant memory for him. He no longer complains that his back hurts, because he carried more than a heavy backpack around with him on a daily basis. He runs free, plays sports, goes fishing, drives his go-kart in crazy circles. He attends camp, and he comes home smiling, every single day. His hair is wild and streaked, from chlorine and sun, and from racing through the wind. And he bakes.

It started one Friday afternoon, close to the start of Shabbat, and he looked at me and said, “Can I bake a cake?” I sighed. My gut instinct was to follow my “No Baking Ever” policy. There were a million reasons to say no. We were rushing to prepare by sunset. The kids needed showers. The kitchen was already a mess and needed to be cleaned, and I couldn’t imagine making it even messier. And I didn’t have the time or patience to methodically go through each step and show him where everything was kept, or what a tablespoon was.

For some reason, I said yes.

He flipped through a cookbook and found a recipe that we agreed upon. I had all of the ingredients on hand. It was doable. But instead of handing him one bundt pan, I had two medium disposables, and I told him he could split the batter in two, and give one cake to his grandparents.

It was a marble cake. I won’t say that it was perfect, but it was oily and moist, the exact opposite of the healthier cakes I sometimes try to make. We threw on the frosting, just as I was about to light the candles to begin Shabbat, and then he sliced into it and sampled his creation. We all did. And the praise we sent his way radiated all the way through his eyes, and made him stand a little taller.

He delivered a cake to his grandparents and cousins, who were staying a few doors down. And each person who ate the cake praised him with words that wrapped their way around his healing heart, and he emerged at the end of Shabbat as a bigger, better version of himself. Each morsel of encouragement rebuilt his confidence, bit by bit.

He felt so purposeful, that for the next weeks that followed, he would again ask to bake, sometimes even at the most inconvenient times possible, where the stress was hanging in the air and I really didn’t need an extra person asking me what the difference between baking soda and baking powder was. But always, I said yes, because I had witnessed the transformation, had seen the magic it performed on him. And always, he would wash the dishes and try to minimize the invasion in my kitchen.

He made a frosted yellow cake that sunk in the middle, and he was disappointed. He made chocolate chip cookies that were accidentally whole wheat but nobody seemed to mind. And even though his finished products were perfectly imperfect, and the results were sometimes out of his control, he was learning to deal with the frustrations of the outcome, and trying to enjoy the product even though it wasn’t quite the way he had envisioned. I could see that herein lay the methodical undoing of damage. He was feeling proud and capable using the same parts of himself that once felt unworthy. He was able to bring happiness to others, to connect through his pastries.

He proudly shares his creations with visitors and our relatives, and each time, waits patiently for those words of recognition to carry him through to the next week. Recently, he turned to me and said, “I’m going to bake something every single week, even after the summer ends.” I paused, my gut instinct of wanting to sigh now replaced with the realization of the greater benefits this would afford. And I’m grateful for that one Friday afternoon, when instead of letting my stress get the best of me, for some reason, I begrudgingly muttered, “Yes.”

By Sarah Abenaim

 Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected].