Finding Joy at the Bottom of the Mixing Bowl

Baking elaborate weekly desserts seemed foolish, but was exactly what our family needed

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Growing up, my mother’s recipe notebook with its smart blue and white gingham cover fascinated me endlessly. A farewell gift from her friend Jan, the book was presented to my parents when they left the United States in 1982 to return to India. The first several pages of the notebook are filled with Jan’s favorite cookie recipes, written in neat, perfectly curlicued cursive. Her jam thumbprints and snickerdoodles are followed by a mishmash of my mother’s own recipes collected over the years — Indian pickles, elaborate layered rice dishes fit for a party, and her signature chocolate buttermilk cake, among other treasured favorites.

Venture a little further into this notebook, and you’ll find nine-to-eleven year old Purnima’s handwriting — each word painstakingly formed and just a bit too florid. These entries are composed of detailed instructions for fruit crisps and whipped cream layer cakes, hand-copied from back issues of Better Homes and Gardens and Women’s Day that my parents received from a local magazine circulation service. I would thumb through them all, enamored by the pictures, and start transferring recipe ideas into Amma’s notebook for us to try.

(I can still remember the gangly limbs of the man-boy who delivered these magazines every Tuesday and Friday. He rode a bicycle, both handlebars weighed down with bags of glossy foreign monthlies, Bollywood gossip rags, and Tamil political publications. In preparation for his arrival, my grandfather and I would spend those two weekday mornings frantically scouting under beds and sofas to find the magazines that needed to be returned from our last delivery, so we could receive the next batch he curated for us. We would argue with the poor guy frequently, accusing him of shortchanging us by pawning uninteresting, old, or no-longer-relevant issues onto our family. I often marched over to his bicycle myself, demanding to see what “better stock” he was hiding from us. How he stayed so good-humored despite our years of constant badgering is beyond me.)

Sandwiched between my mother’s checkered notebook pages are a million childhood memories. In our hot, sticky Chennai kitchen, with a single ceiling fan rotating lazily above, somewhere between the weekly demands of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Amma and I baked together. We made cookies and layered fruit trifles. We experimented with boxed brownie mixes my father brought back from business trips, and tried more than just a few dessert recipes from those magazines we received each week. We laughed as we stirred, bonded as we tested for doneness. And in that happy fog of butter, baking soda, and chocolate chips, my fascination with the alchemy of baking grew, forming and taking flight into something that would continue to give me comfort far into adulthood.

Once I had children, I couldn’t wait to recreate these memories with my boys. Even though baking had been much less messy when it was just me in the kitchen, I couldn’t deny how special it was to have their sweet hands in the batter with me, and how every time they licked the spatula, it sparked such a visceral memory of doing the same myself as a child. As they grew older, the experience became even more interesting, as we talked about the science of baking and what chemical reactions were literally unfolding in the oven — all while they licked the frosting bowl clean, of course.

So it should have come as no surprise when I walked downstairs one morning a few months ago, to see my seven year old’s nose buried deep in the pages of Food 52’s Genius Desserts. The intensity of his focus both amused and slightly alarmed me. After about 45 minutes, he finally lifted his head. “Amma, have you seen this recipe for chocolate cloud cake???” he asked urgently, thrusting the book into my hands. “Why haven’t we made this yet?” It was not the first time he had wanted us to bake together, but it was definitely the first time he had expressed such a pointed opinion about WHAT we should be making. I had a vivid flashback to myself at his age, and I couldn’t stop smiling. “We’ll make it this weekend,” I said immediately.

Make it, we did. And although it was delicious, I didn’t quite bargain for what came next. Over the next several days, my son suggested no fewer than ten more desserts he thought we should be making. Each time, I looked at the recipe he showed me and was frankly impressed. The kid had good taste! I would have gladly chosen all of these flavor combinations myself. However, we were in COVID-induced quarantine. My love of baking ran deep, but I had always enjoyed sharing the desserts I made with others. There were no dinner parties on the horizon, and this seemed like a literal recipe for disaster. Who exactly was going to consume all these baked goods we were supposed to be making?

Turns out, I should have trusted the seven year old, quarantine be damned. Somehow , if we baked a knockout recipe, the audience magically showed up. Friends gladly accepted wedges of bundt cake. Neighbors requested cherry bars and Atlantic beach pie for their birthdays. We hand-delivered slices of hazelnut brown butter cake with chocolate ganache to sick friends we wished we could hug. Shortbread cookies were perfect for socially distanced playdates, and peach cobbler made for a great backyard dinner contribution. And sometimes, when the day was wearing especially heavy on our shoulders, we skipped making dinner and cheered ourselves up with homemade ice cream.

We were on to something here. Baking had gone from something I did for personal comfort, and become a way to spread a little joy during a bleak time. Now, five months later, our copy of Genius Desserts looks pretty battered. The spine is swollen from frequent use, and the pages are stained and dog-eared. My son still carries it around the house like precious cargo, and I often find it in the backyard or on his nightstand in the morning. He’s expanded his obsession to another book he found on my shelves, one that specializes in layered cakes. He tags the ones he likes with purple post-it notes, and often doodles his own cake illustrations, with a key describing what’s in each layer, filling, and frosting. I can’t help the way seeing these drawings tugs at my heart.

On the phone with Amma a few weeks ago, she recalled how enamored I used to be with her gingham recipe book. “You remember all those fancy desserts you wanted us to make?”, she laughed. She still has the notebook in a drawer somewhere, although my mother is now such an expert that she rarely needs a written recipe anymore. When I was preparing to move from India to California, I started a notebook of my own. Mine is a repurposed day planner filled with my hurried scrawl as Amma dictated family recipes over the phone, interspersed with several pages in my grandmother’s delicate hand, written when she taught me to cook as a new bride. Glancing over at my seven year old’s bowed head as he examines Genius Desserts for the hundredth time, it seems like just a matter of time before he starts adding his own contributions to our family’s notebook. And considering how lofty his baking ambitions have become recently (we’re attempting a neoclassic buttercream this week), I better get the beaters ready.

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Often reading, writing, or teaching. Always cooking, baking, and eating. Words in Human Parts, Curious, Modern Parent. Connect on Twitter @purnima_mani

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