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Amy Halloran

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Amy Halloran writes about food and agriculture. An avid baker, particularly of pancakes, she is very interested in the revival of regional grain systems. She blogs at amyhalloran.com and FromScratchClub.com, and archives her work at amyhalloran.net.

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Tips To Get White-Flour Lovers To Leap To Whole Wheat Image

The soup kitchen where I work has a beautiful griddle, perfect for pancakes — the food that spins my world. Yet I’ve been hesitant to make them because I like to serve them fresh, and serving 100 people necessitates making them ahead of time and keeping them warm. I’m also dedicated to whole grains, but people who eat here are the same as many Americans, dubious about whether they’ll like whole-grain foods. I often hear people ask for white bread for breakfast and reject whole-wheat rolls for lunch.

These breads are soft stuff that comes from plastic sleeves, the easy-to-catch remnants from supermarkets. Stale bread travels more freely to food pantries and soup kitchens than other foods, such as produce. That’s because bread looks better longer than fruit and vegetables, which show smelly and off-putting signs of age sooner. Produce is just more perishable than bread.

Plus, produce is more susceptible to food-safety problems. When’s the last time you heard of a sliced bread recall? You can probably remember salmonella in spinach, tomatoes and jalapeño peppers, not to mention more shelf-stable foods, such as peanuts.

How we got hooked on white bread

The preference for white bread goes beyond its mere shelf-stability. Long a hallmark of the rich, white flour only became inexpensive in the late 1800s, when roller milling became common.

White flour is made from just the endosperm, the center part of a grain kernel, minus the bran and germ. These subtractions were pricey when stone milling was the main route to flour. Bran and germ also offer problems.

Roller milling was a boon to flour because it separates the component parts of the grain, making it easier to divide them. Germ contains oils that make flour spoil more easily. These oils can also gum up the mill process. In Michael Pollan’s latest book “Cooked,” anonymous millers told him that germ is such a trouble to milling that it is generally removed from national brands of whole-wheat flour.

Bran is less bothersome at the mill, but bakers don’t love how it acts like knives in rising dough. This makes whole-wheat breads more dense than their puffy, fluffy, white cousins.

This is because wheat’s main goal is reproduction. Wheat germ is the part of a kernel meant to start another plant. Bran is several layers of armor that protect the next generation of wheat — the germ and its food, the endosperm. Any function or flavor we get is secondary to the plant’s intention.

While bran’s benefits used to be dismissed, the current thinking is that the indigestible fiber slows down metabolism of the starches in flour. Because starches convert to sugars in digestion, eating whole grains translates to lower blood-sugar levels. However, habits make whole-grain baked goods a hard sell.

Bran and germ contain most of the flavor you can find in a wheat berry. That starchy endosperm doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own. White flour takes its flavors from its processing. White flour gets flavors from fermentation (by yeast or sourdough), from salt and sweeteners added during processing, and from the chemical reactions of baking, which both colors and creates crust.

Embracing whole wheat

Whole-grain flours have more taste, and that is troubling. Luckily, there are some methods to help the dedicated white-flour eater take the leap.

Just as some fish are more fishy tasting than others, some whole wheats are wheatier. As with fish, freshness counts a lot, too.

Wheats are red or white. This classification refers to the color of the bran. Red wheats have more tannins than whites. Tannins in whole wheat can be perceived as bitter. However, even dedicated whole wheatsters like me can taste the sweetness of white wheats. I am a huge fan.

More reds are grown than whites because white wheats tend to sprout easily in the field. This is another example of the plant’s first function taking precedence over its edibility again.

Brands to consider

If you can get locally grown and milled flour, find out about the color of the kernels. I have a pretty steady affection for the white whole-wheat pastry flour from Farmer Ground Flour. The pancakes I make from it ride little magic carpets in my mind. They’re oh so sweet and fluffy.

White whole-wheat flours are manufactured by many national brands. My favorite are King Arthur, Arrowhead and Bob’s Red Mill. If you are trying to persuade people to use whole grains, these types of flour are good suggestions for first-time users.

Of course, there is still the hurdle of texture, especially in leavened breads. Whether the wheat is white or red, the knife-like action of bran can keep your loaf from fluffing. If you’re baking for eaters who demand softness, use half white whole-wheat flour and half unbleached flour. You could ease people into your program with foods that are supposed to be denser, like banana breads, where you could easily get away with 100% white whole-wheat flour.

Don’t cater too much to those preferences, though. When I made pancakes at work, I used a combination of King Arthur white whole-wheat flour and that heavenly pastry flour from Farmer Ground. The cakes were light, fluffy and well-loved. We served scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes topped with blueberries.

The only complaints we got were from people who didn’t like pancakes for lunch.

Top photo: Whole-wheat pancakes. Credit: Jacob VanHouten/iStock

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The Local Malt Issue That Can Change Craft Brewing Image

Local sourcing is an increasingly mainstream priority for restaurants, chefs and almost anyone producing food or beverages. But it’s not such an easy proposition for craft brewing. Unlike butchers who know their pig suppliers or jam makers who know their berry farmers, craft beer makers have a hard time finding local sources of hops and other beer ingredients.

“Everyone talks about local beer, but probably only the water and the brewer are local,” said Robby Crafton, brewer at Big Alice Brewing, during the recent Brewer’s Choice event at New York City’s Beer Week.

Truly local beer is hard to make. This is not the brewers’ fault. Blame it on a regionalized agriculture system that has centralized areas of grain production and processing.

New York state used to be a prime hops producer, but humid summers invite fungal predators, so farmers quit growing hops there. In the United States, hops are now grown mostly in the Pacific Northwest.

Grain production used to be routine in the Northeast too, but climate challenges and westward expansion pushed the crop elsewhere. The last malt in the area was probably made in Buffalo, on the western edge of New York state. Grain processing lingered there because of its great transit location on the Great Lakes. Now, most malt comes from Belgium or the Midwest.

Everyone’s going local

However, a growing preference for local goods is helping change things, and brewers are excited about the flavors they can get from freshly malted and regionally grown grains.

“There’s a beautiful softness and fluffiness from the spelt,” said Joe Grimm, who was pouring Grimm Artisanal Ales’ spelt saison at Brewer’s Choice with his fellow brewer Lauren Carter Grimm.

“Historically, this has been a cool micro-trade show/hangout,” said Kelly Taylor, from KelSo Beer. “It’s awesome that we can take that GrowNYC component and add it to the event.”

Taylor, along with Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43, and Dave Brodrick from Blind Tiger ale house, organized Brewer’s Choice with June Russell, from GrowNYC. GrowNYC is the parent organization of Greenmarket, which operates 55 farmers markets in the city, and Greenmarket’s Regional Grains Project.

The organization promotes regional grain in a number of ways. Greenmarket set a minimum percentage of local flour that farmers market bakers must use. The grains project collaborates with other groups on initiatives, such as New York Farm to Bakery, which paired New York City bakers with millers from New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania.

This recent collaboration with Brewer’s Choice echoes a 2010 bread tasting at the French Culinary Institute in New York City that put local flour on bakers’ radars and in their mixing bowls. Now local malt is in the hands of regional brewers.

Valley Malt, a pioneering malt house in Hadley, Mass., supplied 6,000 pounds of malt to 20 brewers, who had to use at least 30% local grain. Malt from startup Farmhouse Malt also came to Brooklyn. Other beers at the event featured local ingredients such as honey and apples.

In search of local ingredients

In general, brewers are curious about local grain, but limited availability and high cost keep them from using more of it.

“The fact of the matter is that local grain is three or four times the price,” said Taylor, who uses some local grains at KelSo and also at Heartland, where he is the brewmaster. Although the resulting beers have a certain terroir, the extra layer of flavor is very subtle and delicate. The beers, he said, are not two or three times better than others. “But from a social and economic standpoint, it’s 100% better.”

The value, he said, is in trickle-up economics. When local farmers prosper, the economy grows.

“I think in a couple of years this could be 100% local,” Taylor said.

Part of the problem is that small-scale malts, unlike their big-market cousins, don’t have easily understood or well-known performance characteristics. Their qualities vary and working with them can bring uncertainties for brewers. Russell identified another problem on Carbone’s radio show the night before the event: the processing bottleneck. There are not enough small malt houses in the Northeast.

Since New York state’s 2013 Farm Brewery law linked licensing to use of local products, a number of startup malt houses in the state are beginning to address the need. Like the recent Farm Distillery and Farm Cidery Laws, the new law makes it easier for small-scale producers that use local products to get necessary licenses.

If this was local malt’s debutante ball, her many suitors loved the dance. People kept tipping their glasses for pours even after the lights went up and security started guiding the lively crowd out of the hotel.

“It’s over,” Bill Herlicka, of White Birch Brewing in New Hampshire, told one hopeful drinker after he’d unscrewed the taps on his Bill’s Brown Rye and First Sparrow.

The rye was made with Danko, a Polish variety of the grain. Herlicka described the result as sweet and bready, with an interesting coffee quality. Typically rye makes a beer that is dry, sharp and spicy, he said.

Herlicka said brewers would love to use more local ingredients for a number of reasons, including the fact that customers also prefer it. He would be willing to pay more for local ingredients if he could promote that on his beer’s label, he said.

“I would use more local grain,” Herlicka said.

Top photo: Michelle Crafton, Scott Berger, center, and Robby Crafton from Big Alice Brewing at Brewer’s Choice. Credit: Corey Offsey

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Malt Makes The Leap From Brewing To Pancakes Image

I almost skipped my first chance to visit Valley Malt, New England’s first malthouse in a century. Although I love learning about people who are using grains, I don’t drink anymore, and I never made beer. What use could I possibly have for barley malt?

Lucky I reserved my reserve, and met malt pioneers Andrea and Christian Stanley. They showed me their first malting system and how they germinated grain — mostly barley — for brewers and distillers.

I stuck my nose in a bag of malted barley and I smelled Grape Nuts. Criminy. Let me at the kitchen. Here was an ingredient I could use.

Grape nuts is quick bread made in a sheet pan, baked, crumbled and baked again. I’d only used whole-wheat flour in my experiments, not the cereal’s mainstay, malt. That ingredient just isn’t on the market. Bakers use active and inactive malt powder for sweetening and to help boost yeast performance. Barley malt flour, however, is a DIY deal.

So there I was, in a garage that had once been a potato processing site, in Hadley, Mass., sniffing cereal. “Grape Nuts!” I said to Andrea. “You can use it in pancakes, too,” she said. If I wasn’t already sold on the stuff, that was the kicker.

I have long had an obsession with pancakes. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix ushered me into my love affair at the stove. Decades later, pancakes were the first meal I made the man who would be my husband. Ages ago, I calculated we had them about 250 times a year. The serving ratio went up to daily when I found malt.

The best of brewing makes baking better too

Malting is germination. The same stuff that happens in the ground when you plant a seed, or on your counter when you make sprouts, is what  maltsters like Andrea or Christian seek. Steeping grains in water starts the growing process. Kilning stops it once the seeds reach a certain point.

What brewers love about malt is that the process loosens up the starches in the grain’s endosperm and readies those them for conversion to sugar. That makes the starches available to feed the yeast in fermenting beverages.

Malt is often used in the food industry as a sweetener and sometimes as a flavor. Ovaltine takes advantage of both properties, the sweetness and flavor. In bagels and other breads, however, malted barley is added in tiny amounts to take advantage of malt’s enzyme activity and make yeast more muscular.

I am still figuring out exactly what properties I’m using. I know that malt is a boon to my pancakes, adding flavor and helping the whole grain flours I use rise a little bit.

I don’t make sourdough or yeasted pancakes, so I’m not certain all the chemistry that the malt is achieving. I just know I see a marked difference.

Experimenting with pancakes and other baked goods

The pancakes are such a hit that I started making mixes for Valley Malt: malted cornmeal with rye, spelt and buckwheat with malt, and of course, whole wheat with malt, my absolute favorite.

When Andrea and I were making mixes in December, she asked me to make pancakes and snacks for the Farmer Brewer Conference she and Christian organize. I love to spread the gospel of what malt does on the griddle. Plus any excuse to play in the kitchen is great.

So I’ve been fiddling with malt in more than pancakes. I’ve figured out how to use the pancake mixes to make biscuits. They take tons of butter and less milk. I added cornmeal made from malted corn to shortbreads, cornbread, and pie crusts,  all with fine results.

Adding malted barley to whole wheat shortbread stumped me, though. Fresh from the oven, the cookies were adored. A few days in, I opened the tin where I’d stored them, and I could smell the butter was going off. Had I used bad butter? Was the tin a funk fest? Help! I’m still not sure what went wrong, but I managed to make my recipe work by not refrigerating the dough, and by freezing the cookies immediately after baking.

At the conference, I found people to help me figure out what’s happening in that recipe, and in my other experiments. While the presentations focused on malting for brewing, people who study malt are also curious about what it does in baked goods.

Picture 1 of 2

Service berry custard pies with malted cornmeal crust. Credit: Amy Halloran

The snacks I made — crackers with malted barley, almonds in a barley meringue, and those shortbreads — went down just fine. The biscuits and pancakes for breakfast were a hit, too.

As I mentioned, this is real DIY territory. If you want to play with malt, and you are lucky enough to have a local maltster, get a little bit and start experimenting. If you don’t have a maltster to befriend, you can use malts from a brewing supply place. Either way, grinding is the way to go. I use my blender for the first grind, and a milling attachment on my Kitchen Aid to finish the job.

You can’t use malt like flour, because the enzyme activity changes the gliadin and glutenin in the grain, interfering with their gluten-forming capacity. But you can add bits of it for flavor and sweetness. Here’s a recipe to get you going.

Making your own malt flour

To make your own malt flour, start with a pound of barley malt from your maltster or from a home brew shop. Your maltster might have a mill that will make flour. Ask her or him to grind it as finely as possible, husks and all, for your baking fun.

Home brew stores are used to grinding grain, but not into flour. They crack grains for brewers, who only need the starches released for access in the brewing process.

If this is your scenario, ask the store to crack the malted barley, and bring it home and put it in a coffee grinder or sturdy blender and go to town. Sift off anything chaffy with a strainer.

In my house, I grind the malt first in my blender, and then put it through the mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Otherwise, the malt gums up the works and I don’t get flour.  Other types of table top flour mills should handle the challenge better.

Crackers

Based on Laura Brody’s multi-seed crackerbread recipe from “King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking”

Ingredients

3 cups (12 ounces) whole-wheat bread flour

3 ounces home-ground barley malt flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon olive oil

1 cup water

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. Mix together the dry ingredients, and stir in oil.

3. Add water gradually. You may need more or less than 1 cup, depending how much water your flours absorb. If you’re using local flours, the moisture content of the flour can vary a bit. Add enough to make a stiff, but not dry, dough.

4, Knead a bit until the dough is smooth. Cut into 8 sections. Roll into balls and, on a barley-malt-flour-dusted surface, roll very, very thin. I shoot for something like thick paper, less than the width of a cereal box.

5. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Watch carefully, as edges darken easily.

6. When cool, break into pieces and serve. Store in a container that closes tightly.

Top photo: Barley germinating. Credit: Amy Halloran

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Uncommon Poetry Is The Apple Of Kate Lebo’s Pie Image

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” is anything but common. While some cookbooks may help you make poetry with food, this cookbook is poetry, and more. It is a collection of facts, real and imagined, about pie.

“I created these prose poems that are this imaginary zodiac,” Kate Lebo said of the writing in the book that leaps beyond the expected instructions. These are not anecdotes about your aunt’s legacy bubbling up in sunny syrup each time you make peach pie. Rather, these lyric narratives are gripping slices of dreamed lives.

The pumpkin pie fancier befriends bartenders. “People who love chocolate cream pie move through the world in a swarm of music,” Lebo writes. OK, sure. Or maybe not. Maybe you believe other things about these people, and that’s just fine, because this book makes room for discovery within accepted standards.

“We’re both really attracted to obvious things and finding things that are not obvious, shaking people out of their complacency with that object,” Lebo said of Jessica Lynn Bonin, who illustrated the book and accompanied her on tour this fall.

“Both of us are really interested in everyday objects, objects that we take for granted but really inform us in subtle and important ways of who we are, where we are, what type of relationship we have to a place.”

The paintings of pie and its many component parts, Lebo said, are not just renderings of physical objects, but images that have their own stories. The poet is working in a similar fashion with her subject.

“I’m doing that in the pie book by taking something as commonplace as pie and using a form, using poetry, using language to talk about it and break it open in completely new ways,” she said. “We owe allegiance to surrealists because that’s what they do as well, but it’s not surreal.”

“This is not a pipe,” the painter René Magritte said of his painting of a pipe. This is not a cookbook like one you’ve known, but yes, it is a cookbook, and from it you can learn how to make pie.

The poetry of pie instruction

“Position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep,” reads the instructions in a recipe for crust. When a pie master suggests a shape of supplication for handling flour and fat, even those with deep attachments to pastry cutters will try to leave them in the drawer.

Like pie, the book has quite a life beyond its crust, or covers. The project started as a collaboration between Kate Lebo and artist Bryan Schoneman. In 2010, the two did a gallery show that involved a pie safe and people clamoring for the pies cooling teasingly inside it. “A Commonplace Book of Pie” appeared first as a zine and part of this show. Lebo sold 2,000 copies of the zine, and expanded the cardboard-bound booklet into a book, just published in October by Chin Music Press.

Here are some ingredients of Lebo’s life that are not inside the book. She was not interested in cooking until she was in her 20s, when she had a kitchen with a view of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains. She baked her way through the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook,” and recalls that era as her “cool lady in the city time, singing Doris Day.”

After she got her master of fine arts from the University of Washington, she sold at a stand in her front yard to raise rent money. Her pie stand traveled to places like the Sasquatch Music Festival, and begat Pie School, which let Lebo pass along the fine qualities of pies by teaching people to make them.

Connecting with “A Commonplace Book of Pie”

“Pie is warm, inviting, a symbol everyone is connected to in this culture,” Lebo said. “I can talk to anyone about pie. It’s like football except I actually know something about it. So that kicks the door open for further discussion about something that is less approachable, something that is less familiar.”

Discussions on the book tour have covered a lot of topics. Seattle events drew a lot of literary folks. At a cooking school in the Midwest, people came who love pie. Questions ranged from what’s the secret to making the perfect pie, to how do you revise the manuscript?

People are reading the book to each other, which is something Lebo heard with the zine, too. She has a picture of a child — who attended a reading in Milwaukee, Wis. — reading the book to her family while they were making pie. Another fan is giving the book, along with a letter about what pie means in her family, to her children.

“Pie is a gift and that’s something I’m trying to evoke with the book,” Lebo said.

Top photo composite:

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” jacket cover and author Kate Lebo. Credit: Amy Halloran

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19th-Century Breadmakers Had Local Flour, Now So Can You Image

The Greater Los Angeles area hasn’t had stone milling for more than a century, but bakers Nan Kohler and Marti Noxon are addressing that lack. The partners held an open house in November for family and friends at their new enterprise, Grist & Toll, in Pasadena.

Kohler and Noxon, who also is a screenwriter and producer, are part of a larger effort to rebuild regional American flour mills. As artisanal baking becomes more popular and bakers become more sophisticated about quality, locally sourced ingredients, the mills contribute to America’s baking renaissance.

The afternoon was a celebration of flour. In the parking lot, baker Michael O’Malley fed loaves into his mobile bread oven. He belongs to the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a Meetup group with 800 members, some of whom prepared dough for the event with flour that Kohler ground on a small mill at her home.

The breads vanished more quickly than they baked, sitting on a table under a tent just long enough to be cut and devoured. While cooling is acknowledged as the last and some say crucial phase of cooking in artisan bread baking, there was no waiting this day.

Inside, plenty of snacks gracing the small retail space disappeared, too. The flour, however, sat quite still. As the Osttiroler, a type of pine-planked Austrian mill that is quite beautiful, took its first turns and ground California wheat berries into flour, people stared in reverent interest. Some walked up to the bucket of flour and touched the light red stuff, running it between their fingers and over their hands. But mostly people just looked. How often do you get to watch this ingredient get made?

Getting back to our local flour roots

All flour used to be local. Before advances in transportation and technology centralized grain production in the United States, if you wanted flour, you got it from the local miller. During the 1800s and 1900s, milling centers shifted around the country, following the paths of waterways and railroads. At different points, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y., held the crown for flour production. Currently, the U.S. milling industry processes 900 million pounds of wheat a year, but it is too soon to predict the output for Grist & Toll.

Michael O’Malley checks on bread in his mobile bread oven at Grist & Toll. Credit: Amy Halloran

Michael O’Malley checks on bread in his mobile bread oven at Grist & Toll. Credit: Amy Halloran

However, demand for fresh flour is evident. The mill is part of a nationwide trend to re-regionalize grain and flour production. There are a lot of reasons why these staples are crucial as people rebuild local food systems. In an interview at Jones Coffee, around the corner from the not yet open mill, Kohler considered why.

“For so many years, flour has just been a filler ingredient,” she said. “It gives something body and structure, and helps your cookies and cakes rise, but we haven’t had the ability to think of it as a texture building block or flavor building block until very recently.”

The conversation about alternative grains, she said, is fairly recent. Maybe only the last five years, the baking community has started to think of flour as a potentially influential flavor player.

“The most important stuff was your butter, your chocolate, dried cranberries or nuts,” she said. “No curious baker said why, and does it matter, and how can we find out?”

Now, however, the ball is rolling. Last year at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, Stone Barns chef Dan Barber asked more than 300 of his peers to consider the potential of wheat.

For much longer, a number of  projects around the country have been working to promote the use of local grains. Skowhegan, Maine, has an Osttiroler stone mill, too. The Somerset Grist Mill is in the former county jail, making flour and rolling oats from grains produced in Aroostook County. Some farmers there are shifting from potatoes to grains to provide raw ingredients for the enterprise.

That Maine project is community driven, started by people who wanted their area to be known for more than New Balance sneakers and logging. Central New York has a farmer-miller-baker partnership serving artisan bakers and consumers in the region, as well as the New York City market. New York’s Farmer Ground Flour is a farmer driven enterprise undertaken by Thor Oeschner as he saw the land he rented gobbled up for real estate.

Grist & Toll fits into the list of baker-driven ventures, like Wild Hive Community Grain Project, Don Lewis’ mill in New York’s Hudson Valley, and Carolina Ground, the mill started by Jennifer Lapidus that uses grains from North and South Carolina.

Conversations about grains

Most baker-initiated projects, though, center on artisan bread baking, and Kohler’s focus has been pastry. A home baker who used to work in the wine industry, she turned her passion for pastry into a farmers market operation. That passion took another leap, and she ran the bakery for a restaurant.

Grist & Toll also plans to make education a part of its mission. “The beautiful thing about flour is I’m not just creating this product for a select consumer or group of people,” Kohler said. “Flour, even though it’s been missing from this farm-to-table conversation, it touches everybody, every household, every restaurant, school.”

Grist & Toll will be open for limited hours during the holidays and plans its full grand opening for after the first of the year, but the pallets of organic wheat grown in Santa Barbara County ready to mill hint at what this operation means: more control over what types of wheat are being planted, fresh flour hitting local kitchens, and conversations about grains that go beyond the big fat fear of gluten.

Top photo: Homemade bread. Credit: Sue Style

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Baking With Kids? Create Tradition, Not Holiday Trauma Image

Holiday baking is a great way to get kids into the kitchen. If they don’t have a natural interest in cooking, they might have an unnatural interest in sprinkles, icing and silver dragées.

However, if you blithely attempt to make sugar cookies with a 3-year-old, thinking it will be a living tableau of family harmony, you may end up with something much less pleasing. The holidays are so loaded that it is really, really easy to NOT get those cozy memories you want to create.

Here are a few tips on making a baking session that might just fit the picture books.

1. Lower your expectations.

Whatever they are, dial them down. If you think matching aprons and carols on the stereo, and a batch of gingerbread men rolled to perfect thickness, think again. Visualize molasses-coated jeans and wildly rippled dough. Picture worst-case scenarios — broken mixing bowls and 2 cups of salt instead of sugar — and be happy when the disasters are minor.

This is crucial. If you want everything to be just-so, you are going to interfere with the experience the child will have. And you want that experience to be pleasant, not scripted to fit an ideal.

Being tender with the impulse to explore tools and materials you are introducing is more important than working toward the most tender sugar cookies. You can make those at nap time, if you must.

2. Suit your crew.

Bear in mind abilities and ages.

Before you start to bake, observe the child — yours or a favorite nephew or pseudo-niece — at a meal. How do they handle forks and spoons? Could they manage pouring the vanilla? Maybe they would do best just opening the sticks of butter and turning on the mixer. Because many cookies require refrigeration, making the dough ahead of time can skirt a lot of trouble.

Don’t set the bar too high, but don’t set it too low, either. That 10-year-old could be incredibly well skilled and training for junior chef Olympics. If that is the kind of kid you will have in the kitchen, do a lot of talking before you get there.

3. Involve everyone as much as possible.

Inclusive planning can be scaled to fit. A 4-year-old should see you take the splattered index card from the inside flap of the “Betty Crocker Cookbook” and hear how you used to bake king-sized gingersnaps every single Christmas. The 5-year-old might want the story in more detail. A 6- or 7-year-old you’ve baked with before might want to plan which kind of cookie to bake at which session.

The fancy-pants chef-to-be is fully capable of planning everything with you, from recipes to shopping, and decorating storage containers. However, be aware that kitchen dreams can overshoot the limits of time and experience. Maybe don’t make sea foam candy together unless one of you is well versed in working with sugar.

Felix, 10, demonstrates rolling out dough. Credit: Amy Halloran

Felix, 10, rolls out dough for Christmas cookies. Credit: Amy Halloran

Ditto on marshmallows and nut brittles, or any other new territory, unless the two of you have a good kitchen rapport, and are good at talking through recipes and solving crises.

Keep the afternoon manageable, especially if you are working with a group of kids. Leave room for tasting the products with a cup of cocoa. You don’t have to make fudge and gingerbread men the same day.

4. Invite another family.

The best way to conquer your own crazy expectations and/or buffer dynamics between you and your kids might be to make a crowd. This will call for you completely surrendering to the crowd, of course, and that is a good thing.

There is a lot of pressure to make holidays all about the nuclear family. Creating a nontraditional scenario might seem sacrosanct, but it could also be the trick you need to trick yourself out of wanting to stage a Tremendously Wonderful Time Baking, which is sure to end in tears.

5. Remember your own holiday times in the kitchen. (And maybe forget them.)

Each holiday recipe is probably linked to some moment in your life. I remember the year I discovered Edith’s Sugar Cookies in a cookbook I took from the library. The year,  in my 20s, I learned how to make Viennese Crescents from my boyfriend’s mom.

Stepping into those memories is a beautiful trap. I think I can time travel, or that the cookies will carry me. Repetition seems to be the magic maker. However, if I really think about what I loved about those times, it was exploration, rather than repetition, that seared them into my brain and heart.

When I bake with my kids, I try to remember that exploration is a key wonder to cultivate. Good cookies are great, but curious cooks are in short order. Make me some more of those.

Top photo: Felix, 10, shows off his Christmas cookie. Credit: Amy Halloran

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