Over the last few years, I’ve learnt to love baking with my two boys. As a solo baker I’m not too much of a perfectionist – I’m more of a fan of a delicious, but wonky Victoria Sandwich than anything too fancy – but it did take me a while to fully embrace the mess and chaos that goes with children’s baking! For my children mess equals joy. They love it so much, especially when I let them have free rein. I’m no expert, but I thought I’d share a few of my top tips for stress-free baking with little people….
1. Never, ever attempt to bake with your children if you are having a bad day. I always end up getting cross and huff and puff during the massive clear-up operation afterwards. Nobody is going to get anything out of grumpy baking. Just go and buy some Cherry Bakewells instead, it’s much easier and it won’t make you cry.
2. When they’re younger it’s much easier to bake with just one child. When Tom was a baby, Gabriel and I used to bake during his nap-times. And now, Tom and I tend to bake in the afternoons when Gabriel is at school. It’s great to have some one-on-one time with your children and baking is a lovely way to do it. Now they’re older they are much better at working together and we always try and do some baking all together during the holidays.
3. Try, if you possibly can, to get all your ingredients ready beforehand. This could be anything from having all the packets sitting on the table, unweighed, to the perfect TV cookery world of little bowls of weighed ingredients ready to throw in. I have learnt the hard way the downside to leaving the prep till the last minute (i.e. when your child is at the table, apron on and ready to go). You can guarantee that the minute you turn your back to search for the elusive jar of bicarbonate of soda, your little helper will take their chance to tip the flour over their head. I find if I have everything ready (preferably in secret) I’m much more patient and less likely to get completely cross and frazzled! This can get more relaxed as your children get older – mine at 4 and (almost) 6 are much more trustworthy now, although I still enjoy it more if everything’s ready.
4. Choose your recipe wisely. Generally, I stick to pretty simple recipes when I bake with the boys. I particularly like things like fairy cakes where I don’t have to grease or line any tins – plus, little children like arranging the paper cases in the holes of your cake tin (which buys you valuable time to quickly mix together the ingredients a bit more thoroughly). Jam tarts are also excellent – it’s cheap and easy and your children can have a great time playing with any leftover pastry with their tractors (or maybe that’s just us). And you can’t beat flapjack – hard to get it wrong and it doesn’t make too much washing up. Better not to attempt anything too expensive or wholesome – it’ll just go wrong or they’ll refuse to eat it (parsnip cakes I’m looking at you). Now they’re getting older it’s possible to be a bit more adventurous – but take it easy, it’s supposed to be fun.
5. When it comes to ingredients, I use soft cooking margarine (I like Stork) for my baking. Unless it’s a warm day I struggle to get butter to soften, and trying to get a toddler to cream hard butter is challenging. I also actually think that margarine makes much better, lighter cakes. I seem to remember reading that Mary Berry prefers marge too, so it must be ok. I also find cheap, value supermarket flour works absolutely fine – there’s no need to overspend. Oh, and one other thing, always make sure you have a pair of pliers to wrench the gummed-up lid off the vanilla extract!
6. Just try and let go when it comes to perfection. Save your special baking for when you’re on your own. With really little ones, you do need to give them some extra help but as soon as they can manage it it’s best to let try things for themselves. Spooning cake mixture into little cases is such good fun for them and by the time the cakes have been in the oven you’ll hardly notice all the bits that blobbed all over the tin. Homemade things almost always taste better than shop-bought ones – even if they’re a bit wobbly and overcooked.
7. The really messy bit comes when it’s time for icing. I’ve found it’s really helpful to spread out a big sheet of baking paper over the table and then ice our biscuits/cakes onto that. That way, all the sticky dribbles mostly end up on the paper which you can throw away at the end. If I don’t do this our kitchen is sticky for days afterwards. Oh, and remember never to leave your children with all the packets of sprinkles when you go to answer the phone/door… I think we all know how that one will end!
8. If you’re feeling guilty about sugar, bake some savoury things – little cheese biscuits cut into shapes are great (use a cheese straw recipe) as are cheese scones. Bread making is also fun, but I still get a bit possessive about making bread so tend to do it when they’re at school.
9. I have to confess that I don’t usually get my children to help me clear up (beyond washing their hands). At this stage, I prefer to just herd them out when things go in the oven and quickly throw everything in the dishwasher. I know I should probably get them to do it, but it usually ends up with water everywhere and my mess tolerance is usually reaching its limit by this point! Having a big bowl of hot, soapy water ready to throw things in as you go along is also really useful. As they get older and need my help less I’m sure I’ll be huffing about until they’ve sorted it out themselves.
10. Finally, remember to have fun – your children will always remember those happy, relaxed times with you. And let them lick the bowl!