Laiko Bahrs once said, "When baking, follow directions. When cooking, follow your own taste."
I prefer baking. Perhaps it is because, as Bahrs and many of my friends have suggested, baking appeals to my sense of order, my love of following directions, my need to do things right.
But I think there is more to it than that. Baking to me is about so much more than exactitude. It is about warmth, comfort, home, sweetness, love, and celebration. Is is about the heat of an open oven in your face and about the smells of yeast and cinnamon and chocolate. Unlike cooking, it is not something that needs to be done (most of us would survive without cookies, bread, pies); it is something we do special occasions: for birthdays, anniversarys, holidays and for when we want to make the everyday a little more special.
When I was a little girl, the women in my mother's family would gather every December for a day of Christmas cookie baking. In my grandmother's farmhouse kitchen, my mother, aunt, great-aunt, grandmother, and cousins would prepare batter for our family favorites: chocolate crinkles, Russian tea cakes, pecan sandies, Dissingers, sand tarts, and peanut blossoms. We'd bake all day, rotating worn cookie sheets in and out of the oven with practiced precision, filling the brown paper lined table with rows and piles of cookies. For my cousins and I, there were plenty of samples to enjoy, but what I loved most was the atmosphere of it all: family gathered in a cozy kitchen, news and stories exchanged while cookies were mixed, rolled, baked, and decorated.
The actual cookies were and continue to be a beloved family Christmas tradition, but I look for them every year not simply because I love their tastes, but because of what they represent to me. Even today, years since the last family baking day, a peanut blossom is more than the perfect blend of peanut butter cookie and chocolate kiss; it is also the taste of family, of my grandmother's kitchen, of love.