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It's About the Process

One of my best friends once told me that she is a great cook with a great recipe. A recipe-follower, I am not. Cooking was always a creative end to my day—a way to unwind with some colorful ingredients and a glass of wine. With a now-three-year-old, cooking has become an act of togetherness. My Wyatt loves to cook. He loves to measure, dump, stir, and flip, and like his mother, would prefer to just wing it and let the creativity stir up a concoction that someone may or may not want to eat on the other end. Other than telling my husband to spread “about 3 tablespoons” of olive oil in a pan only to be asked how much a tablespoon is, I’ve never really precisely measured my ingredients. But you can’t tell a three-year-old to just splash some vanilla in the bowl unless you really like vanilla. I learned in my mother’s kitchen, and now I have a little one to pass those skills to. Over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that in order to pass down the kitchen lessons that I acquired, I must actually consult the traditions from which I acquired them—family recipes. I figured a good start to toddler gourmet would be baking. It’s precise, and I usually follow recipes. As an added bonus, the Kitchen Aid mixer, being a machine that plugs in, holds Wyatt’s focus as he locks it into place, turns it on, and then checks to see if I’m looking before revving it to high speed. Frequently, we’ve been making chocolate chip cookies—a safe bet. Sifting through my toddler-organized pantry for all the ingredients, I’d look up a recipe online just before assisting Wyatt with his measuring and pouring. Never using the same recipe twice, I recently recalled that a previous recipe used brown sugar, but the one we were creating used white. As I pled with Wyatt not to dump another ¼ cup in the bowl, I remembered that I liked the recipe with the brown sugar. My mom came to town just before Halloween and wanted to make sugar cookies with Wyatt. She asked me to leave my recipe for sugar cookies on the counter. Not thinking anything of it, I pulled out my recipe box and left out the card for sugar cookies—an old family recipe from my paternal grandmother. When I came home that day, the two were covered in flour on their little assembly line. Grandma would roll the dough, and Wyatt would “stamp” the cookies, and then ask Grandma to “help get the leg out” of the cookie cutter as he struggled to push it all out in one piece on the cookie sheet. Seeing how much fun they were having, I made banana bread the following week with Wyatt—this time with my mother’s tried and true recipe. As I stood at the sink, I caught Wyatt licking the spatula. When I busted him, he said, “I’m stealing a lick.” “Does Grandma let you steal licks?” I asked him. He nodded. I had to smile. Who didn’t “steal licks?” The week before Thanksgiving, I changed up my weekly meal monotony and went through my recipes before heading to the grocery store. I wanted some simple, familiar meals that week that I could stretch for a few days, and I wanted to put together some good dishes for our pre-Thanksgiving events. I opted for my mother’s Barley Soup, a butternut squash risotto I created back in high school, a lemon torte written on a recipe card from my bridal shower, and my in-laws’ pumpkin dessert also written on a card from my shower. As cliché as those bridal shower recipe cards may be, I’m grateful for the tradition. Without it, I likely would never have acquired my grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe from my aunt or my step-father’s famous cannoli secret (that to this day I’m too scared to attempt). Cooking with my son is about the process, not at all the product, and so much of the process for him is following the recipe. It has meant so much more to me to follow a recipe that evokes memories and associations. I’ve made a commitment this holiday to slow down and spend time with my family. What better way than in the kitchen with my husband and son, reading my mother’s handwriting and hearing her tell me not to overcook the biscotti?