Magazine

If flour + sugar + children = mess, why let them bake?

  • 17 August 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Sister tips flour over brother's head

Baking is a strange alchemy of butter, sugar, flour and heat. It's a popular rainy day school holiday activity, but does making biscuits and cupcakes really teach children how to cook?

When I ask my best friend's seven-year-old daughter Pheroza what she likes best about baking, her reply is short and sweet: "It's fun!"

A simple, yet perfect, answer as to why we should bake. But too few people make the time.

They work, they've forgotten how, they don't know what to make or where to start, and, well, then there's the mess.

Bring it on - we all need to have more fun and we should definitely be a bit more messy. Children have a lot to teach us and Pheroza has hit this nail on the head with this one.

When I was younger I had two baking books, both old and haggard. Yet these recipes kept me entertained for hours.

I loved to bake - especially wearing the apron. I would cook mostly biscuits and cakes which never looked quite like they did in the books but tasted good because I made them all by myself.

My very clean and tidy family were never fond of the horrendous mess I made, but I was always given one rule by my mother: "I don't mind, Katy, as long as you tidy up afterwards."

With that rule, I knew I could go bananas.

Generally Mum would just leave me to it unless I needed a bit of help here and there. But I always liked making things my own way, making my own discoveries. That was half the fun and I am so grateful I was given that freedom.

I loved learning how to mix and oh, how I loved licking the bowl afterwards.

Never will I forget the day I first cooked a meal for my family - fish fingers and peas for my brother and sister, and a very sophisticated stir fry for Mum and Dad.

I felt like a culinary queen, so confident and empowered at only nine years old. I remember feeling so proud of myself and so happy to see other people eating something I had made all by myself (well, with a little guidance from mum). It's a brilliant feeling to have at such a young age.

They were all so appreciative, seemed to really enjoy the food and encouraged me to do it again. All these positive reactions gave me the confidence to cook for them again and again, and I haven't stopped since.

It's become almost second nature to cook for others. It helped, of course, that our kitchen was always in full swing and there was always someone to watch and learn from.

Cooking has been around since the beginning of time and it never gets old or goes out of fashion. There are always new things to make and people to cook for, whether it's your family or friends at school or work. It's a bit like music - a global language everyone speaks, and open to anyone who wants to have a go.

Those who want to become fluent can aim to bake the best Victoria sponge there ever was - a challenge tried by the grown-up expert amateurs in The Great British Bake-Off.

But one of the most wonderful things we can learn from baking is how to experiment, just by taking our creative cooking licence and letting go.

There is nothing quite like throwing all sorts of ingredients together and seeing what happens. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't - it's all about learning through discovery. This way we create our own way of doing things, even if it's not exactly how it should be.

Image caption Relax, or it's all spilt flour and recriminations

By far the best thing about baking is how it brings people together, to make and to eat. Eating together is an opportunity to discuss what we are doing in our lives, to share what we're interested in and have a good old laugh.

The children on my CBeebies show I Can Cook always look forward to the "tea party" at the end, when we have a chat and a giggle about what happened when we cooked. We talk about what we might cook next time, who we'll cook for, and of course celebrate what we have made. By the end of the meal it seems like we've all become good friends. It's amazing what cooking together can do.

Getting a novice baker into the kitchen, whether it's a child, a teenager or an adult, is the all important first step.

With children it's easy. I turn it into a game. Rather than simply snipping spring onions, I suggest we give them a haircut - a funny image that gets across the best way to cut them - or ask "who can be the fastest whizzing machine?" There is always a chorus of "I can!"

Image caption The best bit?

These games might not appeal so much to adult - although the competitive element might.

But a can-do attitude and accepting that the end result doesn't have to be perfect give you a headstart to becoming a confident cook.

Then there's the reaction you get when you turn up at work with a plate of homemade brownies - the home baker is never short of friends.

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