Anyone who grew up back when there were real winters may have grown to lament the lack of big snows in December in recent decades. But if ever there was a weekend to redeem the holiday snow drought and revive fond memories of Christmas past, then this was it. For a lot of us, Saturday’s pre-Christmas blizzard no doubt evoked visions of a childhood holiday — sledding downhill on a wooden Flexible Flyer, big lights on the tree, Nat King Cole singing seasonal standards and a day of baking with Mom.
Inclement weather is, indeed, a great excuse for busy mothers (and occasionally fathers) to slow down, stay inside and spend a day in the kitchen baking with their little ones. And last Saturday at the Amagansett home of Jennifer and Bill Fowkes, the plan was to do just that.
“Every snowy day is an opportunity to stay inside and make cookies with the kids,” says Jennifer, mother to two sons and a daughter.
As leader of Sag Harbor Brownie Troop 1717 at Stella Maris, Jennifer decided to schedule the Christmas cookie baking session as a way to share her affection for confections with the first, second and third graders in her troop.
“It’s Christmas, and I love to bake,” says Jennifer. “I think it’s something fun for them to do. This is our first year doing it as a troop and I think it can become a tradition, and a way to get together.”
Though only a handful of mothers and their daughters braved the snowy streets on Saturday to bake cookies in the Fowkes’ kitchen, the enthusiasm was infectious. With the snow beginning to fall in measurable amounts outside the windows, a cluster of little bakers in aprons gathered around the kitchen island to ooh and ahh the potential of it all. Cookie cutters in a variety of holiday shapes and sizes, baking trays ready for the oven and jars of red and green sprinkles, mini M&M’s and frosting awaited their fate.
The recipe of the day was the ubiquitous sugar cookie, which traces its origins to Pennsylvania and the German Protestants who settled the area in the 18th century. As Jennifer pulls pre-formed balls of dough from the refrigerator, she gives the girls (and her two sons) a few tips.
“We have to keep the dough cold,” she warns. “The dough is made of butter, sugar and cream cheese, so if it’s too warm it won’t roll out nicely.”
“Cold dough is the secret,” adds Jennifer, who constantly pops dough back into the refrigerator when it’s been played with too much — definitely an issue with this group.
So with a little flour on the counter, and more on their faces, Jennifer hands her grandmother’s rolling pin over to the Brownies and the bake-a-thon begins. When asked if she baked with her own mother as a child, Jennifer acknowledges that although her mother is a great cook, she is not the baker in the family — that honor goes to Jennifer’s 92 year old Polish grandmother.
“My grandmother was a great baker. She taught me not only how to make cookies, but she also gave me the baking gene,” says Jennifer. “We made Polish Easter babkas, and perogies. She was always baking.”
“I think there’s no greater thing I can teach my daughter than to cook and bake,” adds Jennifer. And though, like her grandmother, Jennifer loves it, she knows that baking isn’t for everyone — like her mother.
“There’s more precision in baking than cooking,” says Jennifer. “You have to follow the recipe exactly. It’s a precision thing and a patience thing. If you have three quarters of the ingredients in cooking you can fake it, but not in baking.”
A certain amount of patience is also required when it comes to standing by while six, seven and eight year olds decorate cookie creations in your kitchen. But Jennifer remains amazingly calm as the cooled sugar cookies get the final Brownie treatment. Frosting flies as growing drifts of red and green sprinkles are heaped upon cookies shaped like snowflakes, Bavarian cottages, Christmas trees, gingerbread men and stars.
A little messy, yes, but an important life lesson in baking 101. Practice is key, notes Jennifer, and the kids learn best by doing — another tradition that this generation of moms can impart to their little ones on a snowy day in the kitchen.
“All three of my kids can crack and egg and use a whisk,” says Jennifer. “But it is tough, not jumping in, and letting them make their mess decorating their own creations.”
And as experience has shown, when it comes to baking even the messes are absolutely delicious — especially in those days before Christmas when the world is a winter wonderland.
Top: Liam and Mimi Fowkes and Sophie Flax mix up a batch of Christmas cookies during Saturday’s blizzard.