Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Going against my grain – Eleanor's first baking lesson

Until recently I have avoided messy play like the plague. The thought of everything that could go wrong, clearing up the mess, the sheer effort of it totally put me off. But I knew really that this was pandering to my own need for order and control, not Eleanor's need for exploration. So I vowed to have one session of messy play every week.

A couple of weeks ago I decided the activity should be baking. We'd bought a big bag of novelty cookie cutters months before but until then Eleanor had only ever used them as a shape identification and sorting exercise. Because I'd never given her the opportunity to use them for anything else. So I decided all that should change, and embarked on the task of making gingerbread with Eleanor.

I did a bit of prep as Eleanor watched TV (yes, she watches TV and yes, I know she shouldn't, I may get to that in another post...) such as greasing the baking trays, weighing out ingredients, melting the margarine, sugar and golden syrup together etc. Then I donned an apron, dressed Eleanor in a probably-overly-cautious combination of long sleeved bib AND apron, and sat on the kitchen floor with her. I'd poured the wet ingredients into the dry and presented her with a mixing spoon, telling her we needed to stir it and demonstrating this with my own spoon.

Eleanor looked confused. She chewed on the spoon a little, then plunged it in and started tipping the mixture onto the floor. I tried to stay calm, explained that the mixture needed to stay in the bowl, but she wasn't much interested in that and started playing with the little bits of dough on the floor. After a while, I'd got the dough to the right consistency, after a little fluster because I'd added too much milk – which I optimistically used as a chance to explain to Eleanor how if you add too much wet, you need to balance it with dry. I don't think she was listening. So now was the time to knead. I showed her how to do it, and she tentaively patted the mixture a bit, pulled a few small chunks out and threw them on the floor, then went to the utensil drawer and pulled out one of the little whisk bits from our electric hand whisk and started poking holes in the mixture. I then grabbed a baking sheet covered in flour and turned out the dough. Eleanor walked around in,and then sat in, the flour.

Now for rolling out. Now Eleanor had discovered our rolling pin a couple of weeks before so I thought she'd be quite interested in how it's actually used. She took the pin off me and bashed the dough a bit with the end, then I showed her how to roll out the dough. Her response was a protesting, "noooo!" and she pushed the pin away, insisting she could do a better job of flattening the dough with her hands. Eventually I cajoled her into helping me roll it out, but she still protested so it was ridiculously thick as I abandoned my efforts.

With increasingly jangly nerves as I desperately tried to beat down my inner control freak and tell myself this was about the process not the result, I brought out the cutters. Now I'd hooked in my audience. Eleanor happily grabbed the mouse and the dog and made them 'run' over the dough, leaving little indentations. I showed her how to use them 'properly' but she didn't have much interest in that really. Nevertheless, I pressed on and started cutting out shapes for her, with her choosing the cutters. I even let her have a go herself.

The trouble was, of course, that with a thick dough and cheap cutters, things came out looking a little deformed – a mouse without a tail, a duck without feet, a horse with only one leg. Santa (yes, Santa, she chose it, I wasn't going to lecture her on how it's far too early for Christmas stuff yet) was a total disaster. So I tried rolling out the dough thinner. But of course every time I did this Eleanor got agitated, and also by now she was so enthralled she was practically sat in the dough so it was hard to make space to actually roll. Then suddenly Eleanor seemed to develop either a fascination with, or aversion to, the gingerbread man we'd cut out – which, inexplicably, she referred to as a gnome. I don't know where she learnt the word 'gnome'. But anyway, she picked him up off the baking tray, pulled his head off, squished it into his torso then put the whole mess back into the dough. I tried cutting another one, and a battle ensued as I tried to preserve this poor little doughy man. (Why I had this battle I'm not quite sure, but by this point I was finding the tension of the whole affair almost unbearable and was probably trying to re-establish a sense of order). Eventually, with not much dough left, Eleanor lost interest in the cutters and started pointing out and naming the shapes on the baking tray in what I felt to be a rather threatening manner, so I hurriedly made the remaining dough into misshapen lumps and plonked them on the tray. Eleanor prodded at these and I explained that they were just lumps to use up the dough, and she repeated the word, "lumps," while trying to stick them onto the yes-misshapen-but-actually-quite-nice-looking-in-comparison biscuits we'd made earlier. I swiftly moved the baking trays off the floor to try and salvage what we'd already achieved, which was this:

Unfortunately, because of the thickness of the dough and the fact that I'd crammed the biscuits together a bit too closely, and the fact that I haven't baked in a gas oven in years as our previous home had an electric oven, they came out like this:

I probably should have taken a picture of Eleanor after this endeavour too, with leggings and socks covered in flour and bits of dough. But by that stage I felt like my head was going to explode. Literally, I'd found the whole thing so trying that my hands were shaking!

So what did we learn from this activity? Eleanor learnt what mixing spoons, rolling pins and cookie cutters are really for, even though she still prefers to use them 'her way'. She learnt about different textures and how dough can go from a big misshapen ball to a big misshapen flat thing, then get cut into smaller misshapen flat things. She had a little taste of the dough, and will later taste the finished article so will learn how things can be made to taste different. Although I kept her well away from the oven so how this happened will probably be a mystery to her.

I learnt that, actually, my need for tidiness and control is a bit over the top, and I need to expose myself to more activities like this to get used to it. I learnt that making gingerbread biscuits possibly isn't the best introduction to baking, and perhaps just playing with salt dough would have been better. I learnt that if I tell myself that the process is more important than the outcome I have to actually MEAN it – and not be disappointed that my (our, I mean our) efforts turn out to look like some horrific gingerbread rescue centre for maimed animals. But most importantly, I learnt that an activity like this will keep Eleanor engaged for a good hour, help her to understand more about properties of solids and the like, and really won't be that awful to clean up if I don't mind her wearing slightly floury clothes afterwards.

And we got biscuits! They won't feature on the Great British Bake Off but who cares as long as they taste good, right?